Down 3-2 in the third period of the U SPORTS National Women’s Hockey Championship, with two and a half minutes left, the Mount Royal women’s hockey team pulled their goaltender for an extra attacker in a final effort to prolong their season against the Concordia University Stingers.

With what looked like a dead play in the Stingers’ zone, forward Athena Hauck captured the puck along the boards, passing it off to teammate Breanne Trotter, who fired the puck over the goaltender’s blocker.

“I closed my eyes,” Trotter said. “It was such a ‘Hail Mary’ shot, and somehow it went in. I have no idea how.” 

With 1.8 seconds left the Cougars tied the Stingers, sending the gold-medal game to sudden-death overtime.

The road to nationals was not easy for the women’s hockey organization. But after overcoming seasons of adversity, the team scored the golden goal in overtime, capturing their first-ever national title in host-city Montréal on March 19.

Rising up

Head coach, Scott Rivett, joined the team in the 2012-13 season – the same year the organization transitioned from the Alberta Colleges Athletics Conference (ACAC) to Canada West. 

The team won five ACAC championships in their time at the collegiate level, but jumping to the university level Rivett said the team may have underestimated the competitiveness in Canada West.   

Rivett said each season became about building off the previous year, developing the experience and confidence which kept the program moving forward, while bringing in the right people to build a winning culture.

In 2020, the Cougars defeated the University of Toronto Varsity Blues in Charlottetown, making a national semifinal for the first time in program history.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down.

Rivett said the moment was “crushing,” but that it offered valuable lessons in overcoming adversity. 

From left to right: Goaltender Kaitlyn Ross, forwards Kiana McNinch, Ava Metzger and Athena Hauck pose with their championship medals. Photo supplied by: USPORTS

Six of the eight graduating players on the team this season faced the 2020 shutdown, instilling their experience and motivation in the group.

“They just kind of understood what the tournament was all about and so it didn’t become overwhelming.”

Fast-forward three years later, and the Cougars finished with a 27-13 overall record, although the second half started out rocky.

The team dropped both games to the University of Alberta Pandas on Jan. 6 and 7 and the team also lost their captain, Tatum Amy, due to an injury.

Despite this, Rivett said, he felt his team had not faced enough adversity in previous seasons, seeing this as a learning opportunity.

“We really felt that this was going to make us a better group, a better team as we kind of came down the stretch.”

The Crowchild Classic proved to be a turning point, with an overtime victory against archrival University of Calgary Dinos – and the return of Amy.

“Having her back in the lineup meant a lot, not just from an on ice perspective, but from a leadership and an off ice perspective, and that was kind of what changed the tide for us as we kind of made that push through the end of the season and then into our playoffs,” Rivett said.

Road to nationals

The Cougars fell in game three of the Canada West finals to the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, but Rivett said this was another lesson and with nationals around the corner the team needed a “short-term memory.”

The team entered the tournament as the No. 8 seed and faced top ranked University of Toronto Varsity Blues in the quarterfinal. Mount Royal won the game 3-2 to advance to their second national semifinal. There they faced unfamiliar opposition, the host University of Montréal Carabins, where Rivett said they started with “their best period of the weekend” on their way to a 3-1 win.

Heading into Sunday’s final, against the defending national champion Stingers, Rivett said preparations were “about resetting and coming up with a game plan in order to be able to help our kids perform under all the pressure.”

Concordia struck first, going up 1-0 in the second after a scoreless first period. The Cougars responded, however, tying the game before going up 2-1 on a power play goal from Trotter. 

Concordia stormed back, tying the game on a penalty shot before taking the lead on a power play goal.

Parents and fans cheer on the MRU Cougars in Montréal on Mar. 19. Photo supplied by: USPORTS

According to Rivett, everything was in “a frenzy” when Trotter tied the game, with the overtime break a much needed time to reset. The mood was “light and loose” in the dressing room, he added.

The team “demonstrated tremendous amounts of composure and confidence in the moment and knowing that we were certainly just as good as they were and had every opportunity and every chance to win this game,” Rivett said.

They did just that.

After playing on their heels for most of the overtime period, with goalie Kaitlyn Ross standing tall to make some key saves, forward Aliya Jomha captured the puck in the neutral zone, firing the puck on net where defenceman Emma Bergesen tapped in the golden goal. 

“It was just such a team effort, and it was such an incredible experience that I will probably never have again – hopefully next year, but you never know,” said Trotter. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

For Rivett, the win does not feel real yet, but the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal years in the making has.

“There was certainly a sense of pride for myself as I was watching the group celebrate, and just how much I know goes into it and how much sacrifice is there and how much this moment meant to them, and to see them get to live it out was a special feeling.”

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