A full plate Winnipegger Ashley van Aggelen, who coaches five teams, is inspiring a generation of local athletes
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Years before she became a coach for all seasons, Ashley van Aggelen was a serial jock.
Growing up in St. James, she wanted to do it all: Cross-country running, soccer, badminton, basketball, track and field, volleyball, hockey and wrestling.
In middle school and high school, her weekdays and weekends were bursting. So much to do, so little time.
That mantra still applies to van Aggelen, now 40, who must surely be one of the busiest people on the local sports scene.
Her day job as the head of the phys-ed department at St. James Collegiate merely sets the table for volunteer gigs as convener of high school boys and girls soccer, head coach of the high school’s varsity girls basketball, cross-country and track and field teams and head coach of the Winnipeg Female U18 AAA Hockey League’s Winnipeg Avros.
Oh, and there’s also the not so small matter of serving as head coach of Manitoba’s U18 female hockey team at the Canada Winter Games in P.E.I. later this month.
But we digress.
How van Aggelen got the coaching bug is a lesson in perseverance and dealing with the pain of rejection.
She was only 22 at the time, having completed her fourth year with the University of Manitoba’s women’s hockey team, when fate pulled her in an unexpected direction.
“She could relate really well with players and she was young herself. But she also had that ‘I’m going to coach and I’m going to learn how to coach well (attitude).’ That kind of assertiveness.”–Kirk Kuppers, president of Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League
Van Aggelen had been recruited to the Bisons program by head coach Darren Juby and when his successor, Terry Matheson, moved on after the 2003-04 season, newly elevated bench boss Jon Rempel decided to rebuild. Van Aggelen was among those cut loose.
Naturally, she was devastated.
In August, Kirk Kuppers, an old family friend and president of the Manitoba Women’s Junior Hockey League, reached out with a recruitment pitch: how would she like to coach the MWJHL’s Polar Ice, a 21-and-under team that included a couple of former Bisons teammates?
Van Aggelen was intrigued, taking only a few days before agreeing to join.
“She was awesome,” remembers Kuppers. “She could relate really well with players and she was young herself. But she also had that ‘I’m going to coach and I’m going to learn how to coach well (attitude).’ That kind of assertiveness.”
“I was working from the ground up,” adds van Aggelen. “I had gone to my little coaching clinics and got my certification but I really tried to mould my coaching around some the good coaches I had in my life, in all the different sports that I played.”
Two coaching role models stood out. Juby was one. Another was Rod Gilhuly, a trusted teacher from her days at Bruce Junior High and Silver Heights Collegiate.
“I go to coach this junior team and I’m trying to bring in everything I remember that my coaches did for me,” she says. “You’re not there to be their best friend but obviously want them to leave your program a better human and a better player, but you still have to draw that line somewhere. You need to have a relationship with them but you still need to be bad cop and have them respect you.”
Six seasons and two league championships later, van Aggelen was ready to embrace another challenge — taking on the U18 Avros, where she remains to this day.
It’s a developmental role van Aggelen cherishes but she feels the pull from other directions, too.
“I went through quite a bit in high school with my family and Ashley was my safe person in high school.”–Brynn Rosjer-Doyle, assistant basketball coach and former player
After completing her education degree in 2007, she moonlighted by also coaching high school hockey for four seasons before landing at St. James Collegiate.
The current Jimmies basketball team, led by 5-foot Kristine Navea and 5-1 Tiffany Ortega, is 10-3 and No. 4 in the AAA girls rankings. In 2022, with perhaps the shortest lineup in the province — there was no one taller than 5-6 on the roster — they went 21-0 en route to a provincial title.
Her assistant coaches with the basketball team, Brynn Rosjer-Doyle and Alexis Forbes, played basketball for van Aggelen and returned to school after graduation to volunteer their time.
Her empathy for students has a lasting impact.
“I went through quite a bit in high school with my family and Ashley was my safe person in high school,” explains Rosjer-Doyle, tearing up at the memory. “It just gets me all the time, just because we have a really good connection… So when she asked me to start coaching with her, it was a no-brainer.”
It’s difficult to ignore the demands of all the teams and players. Van Aggelen seems to have tapped into an unlimited reservoir of patience.
“She’s just such a caring person,” says Rosjer-Doyle, a social worker. “I remember when I was playing for her — that was when she first started with the Avros… She was trying to make it work with everything and she was so perfect with how she handled it. She always had a weekend for us. And then if she had both, she would split her time. It was never one team over the other.”
That’s not to say the rigours of a coaching life are without complications.
“She’s just such a caring person… I remember when I was playing for her… She was trying to make it work with everything and she was so perfect with how she handled it.”–Brynn Rosjer-Doyle, assistant basketball coach and former player
Last week, the Jimmies opened play in the Sanford Tournament with a 63-34 win over the R.D. Parker Trojans of Thompson. After a bus picked the team up in La Salle and returned them to school at 7:50 p.m., van Aggelen jumped into her car for the cross-town trip to the Seven Oaks Arena where Avros practice was scheduled to start at 8:15 p.m.
When she finally stepped on the ice at 8:18 p.m., assistant coaches Kira Bannatyne, Kelsi McGonigal and Gord Woodall already had practice underway.
The organizational engine is finely tuned because it has to be.
When basketball and hockey seasons overlap, the Avros are on the ice four to five times a week while the Jimmies basketball team practises twice, plays two league games and also participate in weekend tournaments. The Jimmies won four straight at the Sanford tourney and walked away with the championship hardware.
Scheduling conflicts are bound to happen but only once in 12 years has she had been forced to miss a game — the Jimmies’ semifinal game in last spring’s basketball provincials.
That relatively unblemished attendance record will take a major hit later this month because the Winnipeg Tier 2 league playoffs are slated for Feb. 27 to March 3, while van Aggelen is away at the Canada Winter Games.
“Ashley’s invested in her players,” says Bannatyne. “Not only our players but also the organization, team… everything. She puts in countless hours and down on the player level, she’s there and wanting to help any player. She’s there helping them with what they want to do afterwards, whether it’s school or continuing with hockey…
“I think the amount of stuff that she’s involved in and helps out with — I don’t know how she does it — but she does it and it’s amazing to see.”
“Ashley’s invested in her players… Not only our players but also the organization, team… everything. She puts in countless hours.”–Kira Bannatyne, Winnipeg Avros assistant coach
Although summer vacation is a welcome reprieve from coaching her teams and a chance to recharge, van Aggelen still finds time, on Mondays to Thursday in July and August, to tutor younger players at the Laker Hockey Academy.
Players such as star Avros blue-liner Lizzie Bird are astonished by their coach’s workload and have come to expect her even-handed approach. Small touches, like when van Aggelen assembled video clips to be used for college recruiting (Bird is heading to the University of Windsor in fall), don’t go unappreciated.
“If we’re having a rough day, we’ll go and talk to her and that also helps the team because it separates being able to get what’s wrong off your chest and then you’re able to come to hockey and play to the best of your ability,” says Bird, one of three Avros who will play for Manitoba at the Canada Winter Games.
“But she holds us accountable. She’ll never yell at us in front of the whole team. It’s more like she’ll take you aside and let you know what you can improve on.”
A cheerful demeanour doesn’t mean an indifference to winning. The Avros, currently third in the eight-team MFU18HL, are seeking their fourth regular-season title in van Aggelen’s 11th full season as head coach. The Avros have finished first or second seven times but have so far yet to win a playoff championship.
“I describe her as competitive,” says Avros goaltender Jenna Goertzen. “She always wants to win, wants to compete and even if we’re not winning, as long as we’re competing, it’s all right in Ash’s books. She definitely plays to win and I think something that a lot of girls love on this team is we’re always in the game wanting to win and playing to win.”
Van Aggelen teaches with a firm but player-friendly approach.
“I’m not authoritarian,” she says. “I don’t yell and scream and swear in the dressing room and stuff like that at practice. You’ll never see me bag skating my team. We may have secret baggers and drills that we need to do to get better at different areas of the game, but I’m not going to line them up just to bag skate them.”
“I’m not authoritarian… I don’t yell and scream and swear in the dressing room and stuff like that at practice. You’ll never see me bag skating my team.”–Coach Ashley van Aggelen
Woodall, who has known van Aggelen since both were U of M students, calls her an “unbelievable role model.”
“She’s collaborative, she’s open-minded,” adds Woodall, who mentors goaltenders with the Avros and at least two other teams. “She gives me time to work with the goalies… there was a long time where I would go to hockey practices and watch coaches run practice and it was like, ‘Hey, how do you expect the goalies to develop if I’m not gonna get to work with them?’”
Woodall says van Aggelen has a rare ability to create a team culture and nurture a feeling of belonging. That loyalty shows up in unexpected ways.
“When we had our last game before the Christmas break we played against the (Winnipeg) Ice here (at Seven Oaks) and the stands were full of ex-players,” says Woodall. “I don’t know what the exact number was but pretty much every girl that was in town, showed up. And, you know, they all came to see Ash.”
Even in her private life, sports is a thread that runs through everything van Aggelen does. She says her wife, former University of Wisconsin-Superior hockey player Alicia Cowieson, has a keen understanding of the demands of being an athlete and a coach.
Van Aggelen’s assignment at the Canada Winter Games — her sixth time as a head coach or assistant of Manitoba’s U18 team at a national competition — comes with high expectations.
In a sport often dominated by male coaches at every level, she will be in charge of an all-female coaching staff (a first for Manitoba) at the Games, with assistants Karissa Kirkup and Maggie Litchfield-Medd.
Woodall says van Aggelen’s rapport with her players is related in part to gender, personal style and her ability to understand the difficult things athletes go through. Even the aftermath of an elite athlete getting cut; van Aggelen has first-hand experience.
“I know a lot of great male coaches that coach in this province and there’s none of them that will have the same kind of connection that Ash has… I think that’s because she’s a woman coaching girls and she’s gone through the same experiences they went through.”–Gord Woodall, Winnipeg Avros assistant coach
“I know a lot of great male coaches that coach in this province and there’s none of them that will have the same kind of connection that Ash has,” he says. “And I think that’s because she’s a woman coaching girls and she’s gone through the same experiences they went through.”
The work is still rewarding but van Aggelen still aspires to coach at the university level some day.
“My goal all throughout my coaching career was to end up in a university program somewhere and there have been opportunities to be involved with other programs,” she says. “At the time, it just wasn’t the right timing for me. My wife and I have talked about it since and we would be willing to make a move if things were right.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Saturday, February 11, 2023 10:05 AM CST: Corrects deck to five from six
Updated on Saturday, February 11, 2023 11:08 AM CST: Minor tweaks