Female coaching staff set to lead Manitoba U-18 hockey team

A first for Keystone province

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Manitoba’s U18 female hockey team at the 2023 Canada Winter Games will have a unique — but long overdue — look behind the bench.

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Manitoba’s U18 female hockey team at the 2023 Canada Winter Games will have a unique — but long overdue — look behind the bench.

It will mark the first all-female coaching staff in the history of Hockey Manitoba’s program of excellence. Ashley van Aggelen will serve as head coach and will be assisted by a fellow Winnipegger, Maggie Litchfield-Medd and Brandon’s Karissa Kirkup.

The significance of the occasion isn’t lost on the principals.

JESSICA LEE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Ashley van Aggelen, head coach of U18 female provincial hockey team for 2023 Canada Winter Games. Van Aggelen and her two assistant coaches will be the first all-female coaching staff in provincial team history.

“I’m so excited,” said van Aggelen, earlier this week. “I had talked to a few female coaches around the province and it was like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s make this happen.’ I’m 40 (years old) but we have some really strong up-and-coming female coaches in our province that range from anywhere between 25 and 35. We’re at a really good place in Manitoba now where we have so many qualified female coaches.

“Other provinces have had the full female staff but Manitoba never has (because) there’s never been enough female interest to coach at this level. You’re seeing more and more females graduating out of university and coming back to coach or graduating from the junior leagues and coming back to coach and they’re bringing a wealth of experience with them.”

Van Aggelen has certainly paid her dues in the game.

After a four-year playing career at the University of Manitoba, the longtime head coach of the Winnipeg Avros of the Manitoba Female U18 AAA Hockey League has been the head coach of the U18 provincial team three times, including 2012 when she guided Manitoba to a silver-medal finish at the national championship in Dawson Creek, B.C.

Litchfield-Medd, who oversees the U18 female prep team at the Rink Hockey Academy, and Kirkup, who guided the Brandon U15 AAA Wheat Kings through their inaugural season in 2021-22, both played in the U of M program and are already veterans of the coaching craft.

“It’s pretty neat that the girls that we’re coaching can see us in these leadership positions and they can see three females in these coaching roles,” said Litchfield-Medd, 29. “We can give them guidance on what that looks like and I think maybe it’s a different perspective coming from female coaches. They’re probably going to take something a little bit different away from it because we have gone down the same path that these girls are going down.”

The process of selecting players for Manitoba’s Canada Games team begins in earnest on June 3-5 when the top 68 prospects convene at Winnipeg’s Bell MTS Iceplex. That group will be whittled down to the top 40 players for another campthe next stage of the selection process on July 22-24.

The Canada Winter Games will be held on Prince Edward Island, Feb. 26-March 5.

“It’s going to be really unique experience for all the girls having such a wide variety of experience and playing levels within the coaching staff and that we’re able to share that knowledge,” said the 26-year-old Kirkup, who grew up in Virden and teaches at Carberry Collegiate.

Karissa Kirkup

“It’s gonna be a ton of fun and I’m definitely excited to watch these girls compete and try out for the team and and really looking forward to the 2023 Canada Winter Games.”

During Kirkup’s first season in Brandon, she teamed with Sheridan Oswald and Amanda Coey to form an all-female coaching staff.

Van Aggelen believes her provincial staff is well-suited to a high-stakes event such as the Canada Games.

“It’s a short-term competition, right?” said van Aggelen. “We’re gone for eight days so you have to have serious buy-in and serious trust from your players and you have to develop that relationship with them early on.

“I find a lot of times it’s a really special relationship between a female coach and a female athlete because we can relate to what they’ve gone through, we can relate to how they communicate, we can relate to life issues that they might be having, we can relate to what goes on in the dressing room and we can relate to how to make these kids better and how to train because it’s a lot different than it is on the men’s side.”

Van Aggelen heads the phys-ed department at St. James Collegiate while also coaching the school’s varsity girls basketball, boys soccer, track and field and cross-country teams. She has a very full plate.

“Once I got into education and started doing my student teaching practicum I definitely found an itch to be a coach,” said van Aggelen. “I joke around sometimes that my volunteer job should be teaching and my paid job should be coaching but it doesn’t quite work out that way. There’s a lot of hours put in for sure.”

Litchfield-Medd never played for a female coach during her formative years and said the experience should be good for the crop of players coming into the U18 provincial program.

Maggie Litchfield-Medd

“I think the relatability that the players are gonna get with the coaching staff is what’s going to help bring us along and get us to the next level or get us to where we need to be,” said Litchfield-Medd. “Because it is it does allow for a little bit more trust there.”

Hockey Manitoba executive director Peter Woods said he hopes the makeup of U18 provincial coaching staff is a sign of things to come.

“Everyone’s excited about this opportunity and hoping it’s not just a one-off,” said Woods. “I think it reflects well on our program and the development of female hockey, which is a growth area within our sport but from a player, volunteer and coaching perspective, there’s still a long way to go. It shouldn’t be an anomaly. We hope there’s consistency and this will be a common occurance from here on in.”

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

Mike Sawatzky

Mike Sawatzky
Reporter

Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.

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