By: Carlos Verde
At Christmastime four years ago, Nipissing University's women's hockey program was merely an idea on paper.
Fast forward to this holiday season, and the Lakers women's hockey team (est. 2013) is nationally ranked and jockeying for first place in the OUA conference. Former NHLer Darren Turcotte has built a program from its initial blueprint into a serious contender in less than four calendar years.
The Lakers have raced out to a 10-1-1 start this season, motivated in large part by a pair of playoff losses to Western in 2015 and 2016. Their journey to becoming one of the dominant teams in the OUA is one of hard work and long-term vision.
Turcotte was named the program's first head coach in August of 2012, and spent the 2012-13 season on a whirlwind recruiting tour while simultaneously fulfilling his coaching duties with the Midget-AA North Bay Ice Boltz.
"There was a lot of really, really long weekends," laughed Turcotte, who as a player suited up for six teams over a 12-year NHL career. "The girls with the midget team were really good about it — they knew I was basically doing two jobs at once, and at the end of our game they'd hand me my Nipissing jacket and off I'd go."
There were many misses during that first recruiting season for the former NHLer who could only sell the promise of a program that did not yet exist.
"My first year was just reaching out to as many players as I could, trying to interest them in a startup program," admitted Turcotte. "It was a struggle when recruits were asking 'who else is going to play,' and you're asking them to be the first."
Out of that first class came two key pieces in goaltender Jackie Rochefort (Ajax, Ont.) and forward and future captain Carly Marchment (Courtice, Ont.).
"It was kind of a random email — I'd never even heard of Nipissing," recalled Rochefort, a four-year starter with a .925 career save-percentage. "I did research, went up for a visit and loved the campus and school. It wasn't a one-year commitment, and we knew that if people bought into it, we could be the real deal."
With the North Bay Memorial Gardens undergoing renovations in the fall of 2013, the Lakers made their competitive debut at the tiny West Ferris Community Centre on October 5th, 2013 with a surprise 3-2 win over the Brock Badgers. Rochefort made 42 saves in the win for Nipissing, while Jade Gauthier potted a pair of goals including the game-winner.
"We played at this small rink here in North Bay, and it was a last-shot-wins kind of game," remembered Turcotte, whose first-year team would ultimately struggle to a 5-17-2 record and miss the playoffs by nine points. "We didn't have a lot of high-end talent, but we had a lot of players that worked really hard — that work ethic became the base of our program."
Morale was understandably low at times around the team; Nipissing lost its final ten games and averaged just 1.2 goals a night in year one.
"The first year was hard, we didn't know what was going to happen and didn't have the best of times," said Rochefort. "It put uncertainty in our minds, but Darren kept telling us 'it's not a one year thing,' and we focused on the future."
The 2014-15 campaign saw a remarkable shift for the Lakers.
The arrival of a series of contributing rookies — namely the trio of Sam Strassburger, Kaley Tienhaara and Bronwyn Bolduc — and the continued hot hand of Rochefort in net led the team to a 12-9-3 record and its first playoff berth.
Two narrow defeats against Western saw Nipissing bounced in round one by the eventual national-champion Mustangs, but the second-year program's wheels were clearly in motion.
"We didn't feel we were quite there yet, but we knew we were close," said Turcotte. "We were excited coming into year three, and we felt we had made good strides."
The Lakers hit their strides in year three, going 13-5-6 and winning a playoff series — a sweep of Queen's in round one — before falling once again to Western in a triple-OT Game 3, the winner of which would earn a berth at nationals.
"It was tough going into the dressing room after Game 3," admitted Turcotte. "Three overtimes deep, they were obviously disappointed and had left everything they possibly could on the ice — that made it that much harder for the girls that were at the end of their career."
The defeat gave the Lakers all the motivation they needed entering the offseason; as a team that already prided itself on off-ice workouts, Nipissing took things to the next level in the summer of 2016.
"It's a bitter feeling knowing that you're one goal away from nationals," said Rochefort, who made 39 saves in last year's decisive playoff loss in London. "That really started the fire to train hard, and the training camp results this year were better than any we'd seen — bench pressing, squatting — we came into this year ready and wanting to win."
Strassburger: Laker Resiliency
If any player embodies the work ethic of Nipissing's program the most, it's Sam Strassburger. The standout forward from Schreiber, Ont. has experienced the widest range of emotions, from a serious injury to a national call-up, over the course of 2016.
"I fractured my C7 vertebrae in our last regular season game at Guelph," explained Strassburger, a speedy third-year player. "It was a long, long process — I was in a neck brace for two months and didn't get cleared until June."
Around the same time she was finally cleared, she received the call to Team Canada's Universiade selection camp in Calgary, Alberta in early August.
"I had to work really hard to get back into shape," said the shifty forward, who missed Nipissing's playoff run. "Being injured was harder mentally than physically; watching your team lose that overtime, you know, you wonder if you could've helped."
She had a good camp, but for one reason or another was ultimately left off Guelph head coach Rachel Flanagan's 2017 Winter Universiade roster.
Returning from Calgary with the fresh disappointment of being cut, Strassburger promptly found the scoresheet in her first six games of the 2016-17 season and is on pace for a new career-high in points.
Talk about resiliency.
The Future: Northern Uprising
The Lakers are a 10-1-1 team that should jostle with the powerhouse Guelph Gryphons for first place in the OUA in second semester.
They're 10-1-1 despite having spent the latter half of first semester short-handed as a result of a series of injuries.
Perhaps it's their workmanlike attitude, or their lack of flashy stars. Maybe it's just their geographic location. But for whatever reason, the sense still lingers that the Lakers aren't being taken as seriously as they should be: They have yet to be ranked higher than No. 7 in the national Top 10.
Records and rankings aside, what Darren Turcotte has accomplished in North Bay is remarkable and, for my money, the quickest turnaround in this country's recent university sport history.
Every coach at every program in the country preaches hard work. At Nipissing, however, they live and breathe it; one returning player was even suspended for the first half of this season for missing summer workouts.
They'll admit to perhaps not being the most talented team in the country just yet, but they certainly are one of the grittiest. To be poetic, their style of play reflects the rugged realities of northern Ontario; tough and aggressive, they win more one-goal games than 5-0 blowouts.
With a strong recruiting class set to join a core that will remain largely intact, it's hard to project Nipissing trending in any direction other than upwards. Canada under-18's goaltender Danika Ranger is set to push Jackie Rochefort in net, while a series of other players will add secondary scoring going forward.
The future is bright in North Bay, and all eyes ought to be on Nipissing second semester as Darren Turcotte's team continues to mature in its pursuit of a berth — and eventual championship — at nationals.