Sunday: The Countdown begins
The hockey team – all 22 members – sit in their locker room stalls quietly taking off their equipment after a 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Gee Gees.
Head coach Les Lawton stands in the corner of the room, letting the silence build before he starts his post-game address.
There is no way anyone could think this team is from anywhere other than Concordia University. If it isn’t the maroon floor or maroon-and-gold stripe on the walls, then the depiction of Buzz on the carpet in the middle of the room would assure that this is Stingers territory.
The locker room is small, a reason why the 22 players are so close, not only spatially, but as a team.
The silence continues, as if the players want to dwell on the miserable feeling as long as possible to make sure it – losing – doesn’t happen again. The only sound is of the ripping of tape, and that same tape hitting the side of the garbage can. They play hockey, not basketball.
But then laughter starts; it turns out that the tongue of one of the player’s skates tore off the boot.
“I’ve never seen that before,” said someone across the room. More laughter ensues as suggestions are offered, Lawton chipping in, as to the best way to fix it. A shoemaker, one suggests. A sewing machine a player has at home.
Lawton finally talks about the game. He has talked to teams in this room for so long – he’s in his 25th season at Concordia – that only one of these players had been born when he started in 1982. Lawton is positive, pointing out the breaks the other team received that his team hadn’t. Bottom line: they played good enough to win.
Then he moves on. There’s no time to dwell on a loss. Always moving forward because at the end of a week of work, the No. 1-ranked McGill Martlets await, a team that has allowed goals in only two games this season. Both of those games were against the team Concordia has just lost to – Ottawa. Before this game started, Ottawa was behind Concordia and in last place. “Ottawa played McGill tough [on Nov. 24]. They lost 5-3,” said Lawton.
“With a goal disallowed,” said fifth-year assistant captain Tawnya Danis from the other side of the room.
“Yeah, they could have been up 4-3 in the third period but had a goal called back,” Lawton explains. The rest of the Quebec conference, continues Lawton, is catching up to the cross-town juggernaut.
“The gap is closing.”
And so, the focus shifts from playing Ottawa to preparing for McGill.
Monday: The Devon drill
Less than 24 hours after the final buzzer sounded at the Ed Meagher arena, the players congregate at the Concordia Athletics Complex.
Three players are at a table in the lobby. They are studying for three different things, but they still look like a team. Lawton is just at the bottom of the stairs.
He comes to talk to his three players and asks them what drills should be run at practice.
“Continuous 2-on-1’s,” says Stingers forward Devon Rich. Lawton looks intrigued, as do the players Rich is flanked by – Bianca Chartrand and Danis.
Lawton asks for an explanation of the drill. Rich draws it up on paper.
“We should call it the Devon drill,” Danis says.
The three players pack up their stuff and get ready for practice.
One by one, they skate out on the clean sheet of ice. Today’s practice is a little different from the rest of the week. Not only is it the first practice of the week, but later on, they will host a team of girls from Hockey Montreal as part of a mentorship opportunity.
After the team stretches, they gather around the dry-erase board on the far end of the rink. Lawton goes over the drills his team will perform. The second one he explains is a drill of continuous 2-on-1’s.
“The Devon drill!” Danis shouts.
Devon Rich officially started her Stingers career at the Theresa Humes tournament in January 2006.
She scored her first goal on Feb. 5 that year in a 2-1 victory against the Martlets at home. It was the last time Concordia defeated McGill.
Ten current players played in that game. The other 12 players now in their first or second year outnumber them.
Rich still remembers her first goal.
“[Victoria Johnstone] dropped the puck to me and I scored with a slap shot by the goaltender [Kalie Townsend],” Rich said without missing a beat. Rich, an accounting major, has scored goals in both wins over Carleton so far this season.
She missed the season opener against Ottawa with an injury. Lawton said at the time that she was missed by the team as one of the team’s top forwards.
When the Hockey Montreal girls come on the ice, Lawton asks them to pick a Stinger buddy. When almost everyone was paired off (Stingers outnumbered the Hockey Montrealers) Lawton gave an introduction to the team.
“You think that life as a student athlete is glamourous,” Lawton told the group. “But it’s a lot of work. You have financial pressures, academic pressures and you have athletic pressures,” he continued before sending the players to do drills.
Tuesday: Weights and Skates
The real workweek starts today for the Concordia Stingers. Some players are in the Athletics Complex weight room by 9 a.m.
If you’ve never seen the weight room before, a dungeon would be an adequate visual replacement.
Anyone entering at this particular moment risks getting hit with an exercise ball thrown in the hallway between rookies Alynn Doiron and Maggie Mac Neil.
In the gym Meggy Hatin-Léveillée and Valerie Lepage-Barrette are working with the university’s strength and conditioning coach Lisa-Marie Breton. Breton also serves as an assistant coach with the women’s hockey team and is a former Stingers captain.
At the end of practice, Lawton lines up his team at the goal line and makes them skate. A lot. Not a punishment, it’s a chance for his players to get their legs moving.
“When the players have exams and other things on their mind, you can’t get them to think about drills so you just tell them to skate,” said Lawton.
As the final group skates for the last time from the goal line all the way around the far net to the close blue line, and then back again, their teammates shout and bang their sticks on the ice. Tired, they still show support for one another.
As they cool down, captain Rose Healy quietly goes around to each player and pats her on the back.
The week of work has started.
About 30 minutes into Tuesday’s practice, Dave Pare, the team’s goaltending coach gets on the ice. It is Pare’s first year as a Stingers coach and the first time the team has had a goaltending coach in the four years starting goaltender Meggy Hatin-Léveillée has been with the team.
“It has changed a lot of things,” she said. “Not only do we get technical feedback, but Dave is also there to motivate us and he appreciates what we do,” she said.
She also appreciates what he does.
“I love having a goalie coach around after four years here,” Hatin-Léveillée said. “Les is a great coach, but he doesn’t know much about goaltending, so Dave is a great addition to our coaching staff.”
Wednesday: Blue vs. Grey Day
It’s 8:15 at the complex. It’s darker than usual and the only people in the building seem to be the people at reception. But then you hear something hitting against the wall from the basketball court and thuds and squeaking on the floor.
When you enter the gym, you see goaltenders Hatin-Léveillée and Steph Peck with their gloves and blockers standing facing the corner one behind the other. To each side, the first goaltender has strength and conditioning coach Lisa-Marie Breton and rookie defenceman Valerie Lepage-Barrette.
Since 8:00 a.m., they have alternated throwing tennis balls at the corner, and it is the goaltender’s job to block it. If it gets by the first goaltender, the second one has a chance to pick it up.
It’s a drill to improve the goaltender’s reflexes, as they don’t know how the ball will bounce off of the wall.
Ten minutes later, their teammates join them in the gym for their weekly off-ice training. Usually, this session includes a lot of cardio and plyometrics. But with the players in need of a mental break, Breton – who leads the session – decides to have fun with the players.
She splits them into two teams- Blue and Grey – and tells them to warm up with basketball, which the Blue team took in a tight battle.
The game switched to soccer and the Grey team evened things up with a win.
The third and decisive match up was in handball. After a scoreless start, Angela Di Stasi called a time out for the Blue team to discuss strategy. The plan worked as Kelly Feehan scored for the Blue’s. After Lepage-Barrette evened the score for the Grey’s, Di Stasi and Donna Ringrose added markers as the Blue’s took the game 3-1 and the three-sport series 2-1.
On the ice, midway through practice, Lawton felt the need to pull his team aside from practice because he could see some of their minds were elsewhere.
“I know you have pressures with papers and exams start next week,” he said. “But the ice has to be a release. You can’t write papers or study in the 90 minutes you’re on the ice, so have fun. We have a big game on Saturday.”
Wednesday evenings, nine Stingers have jobs as instructors at Lawton’s Junior Stingers hockey school. It is a way for players to make money doing something on the ice and to have fun as well.
“We were told that this would be a school for players who wouldn’t be going to the NHL,” said rookie forward Maggie Mac Neil.
“But what makes it so great is that these kids aren’t going to the NHL,” she said. “They just skate around and fall, but you could actually see some improvement.”
Mac Neil along with captain Rose Healy, Di Stasi, Danis, Bianca Chartrand, Kelly Feehan, Kristen Clements, Catherine Rancourt and Lepage-Barrette are instructors for this season.
Thursday: Special Teams and
The first thing you notice when they take to the ice is the extra jump the team has on the ice. According to Lawton, the added jump is normal closer to the end of the week. Practice starts off by a scrimmage – but with a twist. The players have to play with their opposite side. “It’s to see who’s coordinated,” Lawton jokes.
Most of today’s practice is centered around special teams and with good reason. In their last meeting against McGill, Concordia allowed four power play goals and went 0-for-8 on their own power plays.
The assistant coaches take control of most of the tactical work. Lisa-Marie Breton looks at the power play while Harry Yeramian focuses on the penalty kill. Both are in lengthy discussions at the bench while Lawton discusses some strategy switches with his team.
At the end of practice, they go through their weekly shootout competition. The goal is simple: Score and you’re safe. Be the last one trying to beat the goaltender in the breakaway competition, and the next week, instead of your hockey helmet, a football helmet awaits.
This week, Valerie Lepage-Barrette had the honours. And after Lepage-Barrette failed to score on Meggy Hatin-Léveillée, it will be the fourth week that she has to wear the helmet.
But Lepage-Barrette fails to concede.
“I scored the first two weeks, but haven’t the last four,” she said adding she wants to beat Hatin-Léveillée, the starting goaltender. She remains optimistic.
“I like football,” she says about having to wear the helmet. “I just look weird out there.”
Concordia and McGill. Any student who goes to one expresses some dislike for the other. This extends to all sports, from rugby to baseball to soccer and football. Women’s hockey is no exception.
“It’s just McGill,” says Rose Healy. “It doesn’t matter who the rookies who come in are, you want to beat them,” she continued.
The rivalry makes sense for people who have lived or live in the Montreal area. But Alynn Doiron and Maggie Mac Neil, rookies from Nova Scotia, had a rude awakening to the rivalry.
“I first saw it when I went to a Concordia-McGill men’s game at the McGill arena during my recruiting trip,” Doiron said. “But I thought it was more for the men than for the women,” she said.
“Then I noticed it in the off ice warm up before our first game against them,” she said.
“The girls were more intense and in their own zone.”
“It definitely transferred to the game and I played different just because there was so much emotion,” Doiron said.
While it was surprising for out-of-town Stingers, for Tawnya Danis, it’s different.
“It’s personal for me,” Danis said. “I played with a lot of the McGill girls and grew up with them,” she said.
Friday: Final preparations
The final walkthrough was pretty uneventful. The Stingers once again worked on long shots with traffic in front of the net, as they had pretty much all week in different drills – one of the keys to scoring on McGill, a feat they had yet to accomplish in two games against them this season.
Once Lawton adjourns practice 30 minutes early, a number of Stingers remain on the ice. Some working on power play and penalty kill with Lisa-Marie Breton, others working with Harry Yeramian on “quick-feet” drills – skating and stopping between a square of cones.
Later that night, a number of Stingers are back at the Sports Complex to watch the home opener of the men and women’s basketball teams. Some are watching from the stands, others are working as Concordia Event Staff.
Saturday, 12:00 : To the Arena!
If you spend enough time around this team, one thing becomes clear: They are very close. Literally.
Angela Di Stasi and Alynn Doiron, roommates as well as teammates, walk out of their apartment on the way to the Ed Meagher arena.
By the time they get to the sidewalk, they see Rose Healy walking down their street.
After they turn their first corner, they see three more teammates: Mary Jane O’Shea, Catherine Rancourt and Maggie Mac Neil.
After crossing the street, a car horn honks: it’s Devon Rich – a fifth teammate in the span of one city block.
As they get to the arena, the Stingers notice the cars of Tawnya Danis and Bianca Chartrand parked next to each other as usual.
By 12:30, the entire team is in the locker room preparing for the final game before the break.
Saturday, 1:00 : Dancing with the Stingers
With a little over one hour to face off, the Stingers begin their warm up in the basketball gym in their all-maroon getups.
The team begins to file in, and footballs start to get thrown around the gym. When the entire team is in the gym, Healy goes to get blue jerseys to split the team in two for a game of handball.
The team doesn’t look like one that has a game in less than an hour. They’re dancing when they don’t have the ball, screaming and laughing.
After the game, the team does a little jogging and some cardio in the gym before going into a circle and performs what essentially is a dance routine – one of the two the Stingers have in their arsenal for before games.
As “Follow the Leader” plays, the Stingers do essentially that with Healy taking charge along with assistant captains Di Stasi, Danis and Esther Latoures. The team performs the highly synchronized routine as the fun continues.
As soon as the scream comes and the routine is over, the mood changes. Some players go directly to the dressing room; others sit and stretch in silence before heading over.
Saturday, 2:30 : ‘Our House’
As the Zamboni is doing its final turns of the ice, the Stingers go through their final preparations. Lisa-Marie Breton goes through strategy with each offensive line and then with the centers for face off play.
Then with a few minutes to go before the team takes the ice, Lawton goes to the middle of the room and calls the players in.
He goes over what the team has to do. Focus. Stay disciplined. Make McGill work.
Afterwards captain Rose Healy gets the players in the middle for a final cheer.
Concordia then takes to the ice to start their match up with their biggest rivals and the No. 1 team in the country.
The game starts, and Concordia plays McGill tough, despite taking four first period penalties.
The penalty kill killed all four power plays in the first, as well as the five others throughout the game.
Early in the second period, with McGill on the power play, Meggy Hatin-Léveillée made one of the most unbelievable saves you would ever see. With a Martlet player all by herself in front, she deked out the Stinger goaltender, but she recovered to reach out with her stick and stop the puck from going in the net.
Then, after back-to-back penalties to McGill’s Shauna Denis and Jordanna Peroff, Catherine Desjardins fired a shot from the point that beat Charline Labonté to give the Stingers their first goal of the season against McGill and the 1-0 lead on a 5-on-3 advantage.
The goal was an example of what the Stingers worked on all week – a point shot with traffic in front.
The Stingers allowed a weird goal only three minutes after taking the lead when Shauna Denis cleared the puck from her own blue-line. The puck took a turn towards the net and went under the stick of Hatin-Léveillée.
Concordia kept battling after that goal, but allowed a goal to Rebecca Martindale with 25 seconds left in the frame after a possible offside call was missed by the linesman and allowed a second goal to Denis 24 seconds into the third period.
Caroline Hill added another goal less than five minutes into the third.
After the game, Lawton told his team that the mistakes they made to lead to McGill goals would be mistakes that would hurt them against their other conference rivals from Ottawa and Carleton.
“They’re beatable,” said Tawnya Danis after the 4-1 loss.
“The emotion on the bench went down after the second goal and it takes the wind out of your sails,” she said.
“We have to continue getting better each time we take the ice against [McGill],” said Angela Di Stasi. “They are a very good team, but I feel we are too,” she said.
Even after a loss, the Stingers head to the gym to cool down and have fun throwing around a football in a situation that resembled their pre-game warm up. There are still smiles and laughter as the team knows the score was not indicative of the way they played.
It goes even further.
“We’re a true family,” said Di Stasi. “We love each other.”