The Saskatoon Stars are at the Esso Cup for the third time in four years.
The first time, in 2015, they surprised even themselves. The team was young
and coming off a middle-of-the-pack performance the previous season in the
Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA Hockey League. The talent was there but it
seemed, well, green. Five first-year Bantam-age players skated regular
minutes. But youth served noticed: The Stars won their league, swept
through provincials and captured a bronze medal at nationals.
After winning the West Regional to return to Canada’s National Female
Midget Championship the following year and advancing to the provincial
championship series last season, the Stars surprise no one no more.
Saskatoon brings with it to Bridgewater not only a roster rich with
big-game experience, but a roster rich with players who experienced that
big-game pressure together.
That includes five players from the 2015 team – Kianna Dietz, Jordyn
Gerlitz, Jordyn Holmes and Mackenna Parker were the Bantam-agers; Grace
Shirley was an even-younger affiliated player – and another four from 2016
– Joelle Fiala, Jordan Ivanco, Anna Leschyshyn and Dana Wood.
But even with the familiarity of the roster and routine of winning, it’s
what hasn’t stayed the same that’s made the biggest difference this season.
“Going into last year’s [provincial] final, there was that feeling of just
expecting it’s going to happen again,” says head coach Greg Slobodzian.
“For any athlete, that’s the kiss of death. That loss really helped this
group. Sometimes you don’t appreciate winning unless you’ve lost something
“It was definitely a wake-up call,” says Dietz. “It helped us this year
having that little bit of fire in the back of our minds.”
The team won 14 straight to start the regular season. But it was far from
the same-old Stars.
For starters, the team adopted a mantra: Stars Will. It’s written in the
dressing room and on a sign the team takes with it to road games. The
players wear wristbands with the words on them.
“Being able to look down in the middle of a shift, it reminds me what we’re
all about and what we have to do to be successful,” says Holmes. “It
reminds us of who we are.”
“You talk as a coach about whether you want a bunch of players with skill
or a bunch of players with will,” says Slobodzian. “Last year the will sort
of escaped us a bit; this year it’s been in the forefront. We focus more on
our will than we do on our skill almost. I’m lucky that I got both a bunch
of willful and skillful players.”
Some of those players have been with Slobodzian for five years.
“It’s beneficial that so many girls have played for me before,” he says.
“But at the same time, they sometimes get tired of your voice.” The
assistant coaches now run more parts of practice.
The Stars also shifted their style of play. Previous Esso experiences – a
2-1 shootout loss in the 2015 semifinals; the high-powered offence stalling
in back-to-back shutout losses in the medal round a year later – showed
them they needed new ways to win.
The team still scored often this year (165 times in 28 games), and while
many of the goals were pretty, perhaps, more importantly, many were ugly,
scored by simply crashing the net.
“That’s typically not the style of game we coach,” says Slobodzian. “We
like to score off the rush, but after experiencing sticks going cold at
really important times, you realize sometimes keeping it simple and getting
pucks to the net are what you need to get better at. That’s something we’ve
added to our game.”
The players have no shortage of other big-game experience to draw upon.
They’ve played in two Mac’s tournament finals, going 1-1. And 10 players
represented Saskatchewan at the 2017 National Women’s Under-18
Championship; the Stars comprised half the roster that gave the province
its best finish ever, fourth.
Handling those moments has gotten easier, says Holmes. “I try to see a big
game as just another hockey game,” she says. “Obviously, it’s not, but it
calms the nerves and helps you focus on each shift and not the end result.”
“Having that experience under our belt, especially with about half the team
being at the Esso Cup before, helps in dealing with the pressure on the big
stage,” says Dietz. Players are better prepared for everything now, she
says. That the competition is tough is a given, but they now know what to
expect in terms of excitement, media and off-ice obligations.
And they know they can rely on one another when it counts most.
“It’s a trust,” says Slobodzian. “They learn to trust each other [in
pressure moments], and they understand if I give this girl a puck, she’s
going to be able to handle a pass, first of all, and she’s going to give it
back to me. When everyone starts believing that, it’s amazing how they can
The Stars will do many things this week: They will showcase skill and will;
they will score highlight-reel goals and greasy goals.
But after all their experience earned, one thing the Stars will not be is