2022  n c w  u18

If you see it, you can be it

Growing the game beyond the ice, Courtney Birchard-Kessel, Tara Watchorn and Stefanie McKeough made history as the first all-women coaching staff in under-18 program history

Jonathan Yue
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September 24, 2022
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On the ice, Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team completed a three-game sweep of the United States in its summer series for the first time since 2007, but behind the bench, the coaching staff was making a little history.

Head coach Courtney Birchard-Kessel and assistants Stefanie McKeough and Tara Watchorn became the first all-women coaching staff in the history of Canada’s women’s U18 program. The result against the Americans was terrific, but the impact the series will have on growing women’s hockey goes beyond the ice.

“We’re in such a good time for women in coaching positions,” says Watchorn. “With pioneers like Hayley Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette, it’s great to see that women are starting to get in on the coaching side now and there’s a path to making coaching a career, which was really tough before. It’s really cool to see that transition where a wave of players who have already had a hockey career now able to move into coaching.”

To add to the accomplishment, all three members of the coaching staff are alumnae of National Women’s Program, having shared the ice together at camps and events over the last decade and a half, including a golden experience with Canada’s National Women’s Development Team at the 2011 MLP Cup, the only time the three wore the Maple Leaf together.

Combined, the three played 183 international games; Birchard-Kessel appeared in three IIHF Women’s World Championships, winning gold in 2012, Watchorn was an Olympic gold medallist in 2014 and played at three women’s worlds, and McKeough was part of the Canadian contingent at the 2009 IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship.

So coming back to the national program and having a reunion of sorts behind the bench meant a little bit extra for the trio.

“Between the three of us, our paths have crossed so many times throughout our own playing careers, and we have a lot of shared experiences and values we learned along the way,” Watchorn says. “For the under-18 age group, they’re so young and for a lot of them, it’s their first high-performance environment. So, for us to be able to understand and anticipate those stressors and telling them to focus on just being present, enjoying the time with teammates and making them better, you’re always going to play better.”

Watchorn has always wanted to be a coach. Even during a successful playing career that included Olympics, women’s worlds and hoisting the Clarkson Cup with the CWHL’s Boston Blades of the CWHL in 2015, Watchorn knew she wanted to pass on the positive experiences she’s had in the game.

“I am so fortunate to be part of cultures and teams that truly changed my life,” says the Newcastle, Ont., native, who is the first-ever head coach of the women’s program at Stonehill College, “so my hope is to create that environment and culture for other young women who can come through and be inspired [and] challenged, and become leaders and people who impact the world.”

Although coaching isn’t always the plan for players, hockey sometimes finds a way back. After hanging up her skates after a five-year college career at the University of Wisconsin (which included an NCAA national title in 2011), McKeough thought coaching was one of the last things she would be doing with her free time.

But the game eventually took her to Sweden, where she was able to get a taste of coaching and was bitten by the bug. To this day, McKeough admits it continues to surprise her every time she walks into the rink as a full-time coach.

“Hockey players are humans first,” the Carlsbad Springs, Ont., product says. “I learned through coaching that we have to help the person before helping the hockey player, and being able to be there for somebody is something that motivates me when I show up at the rink every day.”

As an assistant coach with the University of Ottawa, McKeough gets to work and learn from veteran U SPORTS coaches like Vicky Sunohara (Toronto), Rachel Flanagan (Guelph) and Gee-Gees bench boss Chelsea Grills. They’ve been able to set examples for McKeough previously as a player and now as a coach.

“Vicky was actually one of my coaches at my first U18 camp and Rachel was an assistant coach during one of my years on the under-22 team, so now that I get to work with them, I’ve been able to gain a more deeper respect for what they do as coaches.

“By having those ’If you see it, you can be it‘ situations, I’ve been able to continue to build those relationships with other coaches and the players.”

The growth and visibility of women in coaching and leadership positions continues to grow. Just this summer, Hockey Canada alumna Jessica Campbell was hired as an assistant coach by the AHL’s Coachella Valley Firebirds, longtime national team defenceman Laura Fortino took on the same role with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs, and 2022 Olympic gold medallists Marie-Philip Poulin and Rebecca Johnston took on player development roles with the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames, respectively.

“Diversity in leadership is so valuable,” Watchorn says. “For people to bring different backgrounds, and to be able to relate to the players, it’s just so important. If you see it, you can be it.”

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

emadziya@hockeycanada.ca 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

ssharkey@hockeycanada.ca

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

jknight@hockeycanada.ca

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