By: Monty Mosher
Ashley Stratton had options when it came to university hockey. She's thrilled with the one she selected.
Stratton, an 18-year-old forward and kinesiology student, is the lone native of Newfoundland and Labrador on the UNB Reds women's team, which has made its return to Canadian university sports after more than a decade.
They haven't been able to show a victory in their first two games, but that's hardly the story.
They lost 2-1 in overtime in their regular-season debut against Mount Allison on Saturday in a game that drew more than 1,600 fans to Aitken Centre. On Sunday, they lost 2-1 once again, this time to Fredericton-rival St. Thomas.
It might get a little tougher this weekend with road games at St. Francis Xavier and Moncton.
Stratton, like her teammates, is abundantly aware of the circumstances. This year's team under head coach Sarah Hilworth is a pioneer of sorts.
A number of university programs around the country have vanished over the past decade, many the victims of budget tightening. It is rare to see it go the other way, and effectively from scratch.
Building a foundation
For Stratton, having a program with a solid foundation and headed in the right direction would be plenty for the first year.
"Then we can keep on building on that for years to come," she said. "Obviously, some wins and to get into the playoffs would be a goal for us, but if we are improving it's also a win."
Stratton was in elementary school when UNB dropped women's hockey at the varsity level. But that was successfully challenged years later by former player Sylvia Bryson, another native Newfoundlander, on the basis of gender inequality.
The program was ordered reinstated in 2016 and Hilworth, a former University of Alberta player and coach, hired in the summer of 2017.
It is hard to understate how well the team has been received both within the campus and community but also across the country.
"Before we even got here there was already so much support from the whole community and all of the recent UNB players and past players," she said. "It's been crazy."
Led league in scoring
Stratton, from Mount Pearl, grew up playing hockey on boys' teams. When she switched to girls' leagues, she led the bantam AAA league in scoring on the way to provincial and Atlantic titles.
She spent five seasons on Newfoundland provincial girls' teams and played for Team Atlantic under-18 last November. She spent the last three years at the Ontario Hockey Academy in Cornwall, Ont. She was the first player from Atlantic Canada to commit to Hilworth and Reds.
Part of Stratton's decision was proximity to home. She also fell in love with the UNB campus.
"But to be able to start a new program and start a new legacy was something that meant a lot to me," she said. "To be able to represent that logo once again is something unreal. I was very happy to be a part of that.
'There is no bad situation'
"I looked at other universities. This was the right pick for me."
She loves the challenge that comes with taking 20 new players and a coaching staff and making a team. "There is no bad situation as long as we are improving every single day."
Stratton had little idea what this year would look like, but has found everything "organized and so professional" to get to this point.
All of that has allowed the team to focus on its performance on the ice.
"Going into the weekend we were all very excited to be able to start this program again. But our nerves were still kicking in.
"It was disappointing not to get the wins, but to be able to get points was a very good start for us. It's a good building point. Now we know we can compete in this league and we're ready to compete in this league."
Players can take a breath
For her part Hilworth was pleased for her players just to get the first game out the way.
"For them, they can just take a deep breath now and just say, 'OK, I'm a U Sports athlete and this is what it's going to be," she said to the media after Saturday's game. "We're in a very tough conference and I've told that to them and to everyone since Day 1."
The UNB men's team might be the strongest in the country with six AUS titles just since 2008. They are seven-time national champs.
It might be easy for the women's team to be lost in the immense shadow of the men's team. But that hasn't been the case.
"The community has been very good to show us support and I think that will continue as long as we're showing up for games and competing at our very best," Stratton said.
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter with more than 30 years covering university sport in the Maritimes. He can be reached at email@example.com)