Monday, 26 March 2018

Willoughby raised the bar for Huskies women’s hockey

Kaitlin Willoughby, centre, celebrates a goal with her teammates.
    When Kaitlin Willoughby arrived on the University of Saskatchewan campus, no one could have seen the profound impact she would have on the Huskies women’s hockey team.
    The star forward wasn’t an out of nowhere story, but she wasn’t expected to be a difference maker that could will her team to victory.
    Arriving on campus in late summer of 2013, she came to the Huskies with the reputation of being a solid player netting 34 goals and 63 assists in 96 career regular season games over five seasons with Prince Albert Northern Bears from 2008 to 2013 in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League. Originally from Canwood, Sask., her family relocated to Prince Albert when her father, Jeff, became the Bears head coach before the start of the 2011-12 campaign.
Kaitlin Willoughby made a profound impact with the Huskies.
    Before her family moved, Kaitlin lived with relatives in Prince Albert when she played for the Bears.
    While she was a good player and finished with the Bears as their captain, Willoughby skated in an era of the SFMAAAHL when players like Emily Clark, who is now on Canada’s senior national women’s team, and Olivia Howe were putting up insane point totals.
    Willoughby recorded 10 goals and 23 assists in 28 regular season games during her final season with the Bears in 2012-13 to be the team’s second leading scorer after Kelly Regnier, who had 23 goals and 19 assists in 27 regular season games.
    Upon joining the Huskies, Willoughby would be suiting up with the teammates that piled up points just as or more prolifically than she did in midget AAA. At the university level, players that were once prolific scorers most often take on new roles like being a defensive forward to help their new club.
Kaitlin Willoughby could score goals and lift her teammates.
    The Huskies had only won one playoff series before Willoughby arrived, which allowed the program to qualify for U Sports nationals back in 2004. Before the start of the 2001-02 campaign, post-season tournaments were often used at some stage of the playoffs to help determine a champion in the Canada West Conference.
    The supremely talented Breanne George played five seasons for the Huskies at forward from 2007 to 2012 becoming the team’s all-time leading scorer piling up 86 goals and 63 assists in 107 regular season games, and she experienced just one single playoff game win in five trips to the post-season.
    George is still the most decorated player when it comes to individual awards won by a member of the Huskies women’s hockey team.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#28) breaks away from a defender in her second season.
    Willoughby got to experience four playoff series wins, a Canada West championship win in her rookie campaign in 2013-14, a bronze medal finish at U Sports nationals that same season, and another appearance in the Canada West championship series and a second trip to nationals this past season.
    During Willoughby’s time with the team, the Huskies finished second twice in the Canada West regular season standings in 2013-14 and this past season. Until Willoughby arrived at the U of S, the highest the Huskies finished in the Canada West regular season standings was third on a number of occasions.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#28) enjoy the Huskies Canada West title win in 2014.
    As a rookie, she was placed on a line with ultra-talented fifth-year captain Cami Wooster and took off right away. Willoughby piled up 25 points playing all of the Huskies 28 regular season games, while Wooster led the team in scoring with 31 points.
    In that campaign’s post-season, Willoughby had her signature moment, which is still the biggest moment to this day for the Huskies women’s team.
    In a series deciding Game 3 of the Canada West championship finals, she slipped home a mid-range shot from the left boards at the 5:09 mark of a second overtime period to deliver the Huskies to a 2-1 victory over the University of Regina Cougars at the ancient Rutherford Rink.
Kaitlin Willoughby shows off her speed in her second year.
    With the Huskies set to move to the brand new Merlis Belsher Place part way through next season, Willoughby’s tally to win the team’s first Canada West title will go down as the biggest goal scored in the history of the Huskies women’s hockey program at Rutherford.
    While Willoughby had a spectacular first campaign, the most telling part about how good she really was came from the fact she kept putting up points over the next four seasons after Wooster graduated. Willoughby finished as the second all-time leading scorer in the history of the Huskies women’s program with 111 points. She continued to have big moments in the playoffs and in key regular season games.
    She very quickly became targeted by opponents when Wooster was no long by her side. Night after night, Willoughby faced the best defensive players the Huskies opponents sent at her.
Kaitlin Willoughby circles in the offensive zone in her third year.
    Opponents would often give her unwanted extra attention in an attempt to get her off her game by giving her a shot after the whistle often with a hack on the wrist. She received the odd punches to the head and a few attempts to put her to the ground with a hit. Willoughby often gave up size in these encounters as her 5-foot-6 frame faced players that were 5-foot-11 or 6-feet tall.
    Over her last four seasons, the Huskies weren’t able to find a player to place on Willoughby’s line who was at her level. It seemed a different player would rotate on Willoughby’s line year after year and have a career season because she was Willoughby’s linemate.
    As a result, the extra attention from opponents on Willoughby increased.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#17) celebrates a playoff hat trick in 2016.
    She learned how to fight through the extra attention, and that only seemed to drive her more and make her battle harder. Willoughby kept improving rapidly year after year earning her the chance to skate in Hockey Canada women’s camps in the summers of 2016 and 2017, and she helped Canada’s women’s hockey team win silver at the FISU Winter Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in February of 2017.
    Most of her peers that scored prolifically in midget AAA never got close to matching the offensive totals Willoughby put up with the Huskies at the university level.
    Her maturity grew by light years at the U of S as well. When she arrived on campus at age 18, it felt like she was still really young, and she definitely projected being younger than her age.
Kaitlin Willoughby drives home a playoff hat trick goal in 2017.
    As she turns 23 today, it feels like she was a lot older on the maturity front than her age in years.
    During her fourth season, I felt from my side there were times we weren’t always on the best terms, which is something that happens in life. Still, she is the perfect lead by example leader, which is a leadership style I always responded well to.
    I felt moved to do as well as in reporting her exploits as she played on the ice, but I always came up short. I ensured the effort was always there, because something in my gut told me I had to do that.
Kaitlin Willoughby starts a rush to score a playoff series winner in 2017.
    By her own admission, Willoughby said she wasn’t strongest on the academic front in her first two years at U of S, but she found a way to improve enough in that area to become a U Sports academic all-Canadian and crack into the school’s nursing program.
    Willoughby became the team’s captain in her final season, and performed so well in that role you started to believe she should have been given that responsibility earlier in her career. The Huskies had a togetherness this season that was a step above the three previous seasons.
    It was due to Willoughby knowing how to inspire the rookies that were in awe of every move she made to the fifth years she had been friends with for a lengthy period of time.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#17) walka to the ice for a game in her last season.
    When the Huskies defeated the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds 2-1 on Feb. 24 to sweep a best-of-three Canada West semifinal series, Willoughby was penalized for roughing with 35 seconds to play in the third period after getting mixed up with a Thunderbirds player who hit Huskies star netminder Jessica Vance. 
    Had the Thunderbirds tied the contest on that power play and rallied to win that game, Willoughby was ready to take the fall for her team, even though she did the right thing in coming to the aid of her goalie.
    The fact she was ready to sacrifice herself and shoulder all the blame in a tough moment for the team makes her a leader you rally behind and sacrifice yourself for.
Kaitlin Willoughby (#17) played beside sister Morgan (#9) for three seasons.
    “I don’t think I’ve had a harder time in hockey,” said Willoughby following that contest. “I was almost in tears in the penalty box.
    “I had belief in my team. I knew they were going to get it done. My bad in taking that penalty.
    “I was just sticking up for my goaltender. It is too bad that they had to call a penalty. Thank God for my team there. They stuck with it and battled it out.”
    To add an extra side bonus to everything, Willoughby got to play with her younger sister and sound defensive defender, Morgan, during her final three seasons with the Huskies.
    For the local girls playing minor hockey in city and everyone back in Canwood and Prince Albert, Kaitlin Willoughby is a hero.
    She is a hero you can go and see, because she played close to home. In playing for the Huskies, Willoughby proved how valuable it can be when a star player plays close to home.
Kaitlin Willoughby makes a rush up ice in her final playoff home game.
    During her final season, she found a way to juggle being the Huskies star player and captain, her studies in an intense nursing program and a romantic relationship. A lot of others have cracked and failed following a similar path, but Willoughby is one of the few that has the make up to be able to succeed. Most can’t do what she has done.
    On a sports front, we might not ever see Willoughby at her best as most athletes hit their physical prime around age 27.
    She plans to spend the next year at U of S finishing her nursing, which is the smart move.
    When she gets her nursing degree, she guarantees she will always have a job wherever she wants to live.
The Willoughby family pictured at the Rutherford Rink.
    Willoughby is part of the top one per cent of female players in Canada and could contend to be on the senior national team. There are younger players that are further ahead to accomplishing that, but it is something Willoughby has the ability to do.
    With that said, the reality is you can do everything right in your power to make the senior national team and still not make it. That program cuts a lot of outstanding players and the margin between making the team and being cut is super slim.
    In life after hockey, Willoughby will be a success. Like her hockey career, it seems she is destined to make good things happen.

    If you have any comments you would like to pass along about this post, feel free to email them to stankssports@gmail.com.
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