Stephanie Gross was a part of the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns hockey team that folded at the end of the 2020 season. But despite that setback, Gross has found a way back on the ice with the Calgary Jags this season after two years off – even while still attending the U of L for neuroscience.
Gross joined the Pronghorns team after two strong seasons with the Rocky Mountain Raiders of the Alberta Female Hockey League. The netminder finished top three for wins both years, earning the top spot in her final season. Though the Lethbridge hockey program was a draw for her, it wasn’t the only reason for the selection.
“I prioritized school first, so I was trying to get into nursing,” Gross said. “But I knew Lethbridge had some older goalies, and I was like, ‘Well maybe they could be graduating.’”
She was accepted to the school for nursing before even reaching out to the coaching staff, but still formed a relationship with the team that turned into a roster spot.
The first-year student then made the switch to neuroscience after a year in the nursing program, with the guidance of some teammates.
“They would talk about their classes and what they were learning, and I was like, ‘OK, that sounds super interesting, and like, more up my alley,’” Gross said.
A change in the tide
After her second year with the Pronghorns, the school shut down both the men’s and women’s hockey programs, something that came as a shock to the athletes.
“Getting that email saying, ‘We have no more hockey programs. You can join this Zoom later and we can talk about it,’” Gross said. “That was definitely tough.”
The Pronghorns program was cut late in the year when most teams already had a full roster, making it challenging for athletes looking to transfer to a different program.
The decision to focus on education helped her make up her mind, as she chose to stay in Lethbridge to finish her degree. After making the switch to neuroscience, she didn’t want to be forced to start over yet again.
Gross’ dedication for school is not lost on her classmates. Jane Sabo, who has been study buddies with Gross for the past year, is impressed by her work ethic.
“Her and I would bounce many questions off of each other, and she was as good of a teacher as she was a student,” Sabo said.
Although Lethbridge has a team in the Alberta Junior Female Hockey League, Gross decided against playing there. Instead, she joined the Pronghorns swim team to help keep her routine and scholarship money.
The COVID outbreak put a halt to any meets during the season Gross was with the Pronghorns swim team, limiting her to only practices with the club.
The start of something new
Eventually, the itch to get back on the ice became unbearable, and she decided to join the AJFHL’s Calgary Jags.
“The coach texted me this year early in September,” Gross said. “I looked at the roster and it was a bunch of people I had played in Airdrie with already.”
That list included her coach, John Johnson.
They managed to work around the travel from Lethbridge. Every other week Gross joins the Jags in practice, while attending each game.
Johnson understands the Cochrane-born netminder wants to make it to everything, but he makes sure school is a priority, both for his goalie and the rest of the Jags team.
“I have always worked with all my players to make sure they have all the time they need for school,” he said. “If that means missing games or practices then that’s what happens.”
Getting the call right before the season made it tough for Gross, who had to jump right in without a summer to prepare after two years off from hockey.
“Maybe my knees hurt a little more and I’m not as flexible as I was, but we’re working back up to it,” she said.
Even after missing the first two days of training camp before the season, Gross was eager to get on the ice, Johnson said.
“She says ‘I got this coach,’ then goes out and has a shutout until 36 seconds left in the game before giving up one goal.”
The lack of preparation, together with the almost two-hour commute, hasn’t bothered the netminder, who has sparkled in her return, stopping more than 95 per cent of the shots directed her way – not just good for first in the league, but a full 1.5 per cent better than second place.
The impressive stats won Gross the AJFHL Best Goaltender, while finishing top three for the AJFHL Most Outstanding Player awards during the regular season.
Not only is she up for personal awards, but she’s also helped the Jags win their first playoff game and series in history.
That playoff run saw Gross once again lead the league, stopping 95.7 of the shots she faced. She also secured a shutout in two of the five playoff games the Jags played before being defeated in the second round by the eventual league champions Cochrane Chaos.
Johnson has been thrilled by Gross’ play throughout the year and attributes the Jags’ record-setting season to his goaltender.
“A big reason for the team’s success this year is the trust they have in their goalie, knowing she will always have their back on and off the ice.”
This is Gross’ final season of competitive hockey before she becomes too old to play and she’s made sure to take in after her time in Lethbridge was cut short.
“This is my last year so enjoy the moment,” Gross said. ”You’ll actually get the ending you wanted instead of an email saying, ‘You’re done.’”