The last time Jon Rempel coached the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team, he had a veteran squad loaded with talent and a U Sports national championship gold medal hanging around his neck.
It was back in 2018, as Rempel, who was in his 15th season as head coach of the Bisons at the time, led the program to their first national title. A large chunk of the team’s core returned for the 2018-19 campaign to defend their gold, but Rempel wasn’t the one steering the ship. Rempel took a break from the Bisons and used the year for "professional development." He spent training camp with the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice and three weeks in Scotland with the Fife Flyers of the Elite Ice Hockey League to learn some new tricks of the trade.
The keys were given to assistant coach Sean Fisher, and he made the most of the opportunity as he helped guide the herd back to nationals. They lost 3-2 in the quarterfinals to the Guelph Gryphons — who went on to win the tournament — before closing out nationals with two-straight victories to claim the consolation side of the bracket.
As for this season, which started on the weekend with the Bisons losing 4-3 and 4-1 on the road to the Lethbridge Pronghorns, Rempel is back as the team’s head coach and he’s got his hands full. The 2019-20 edition of the Bisons features 10 first-year players, as the team said goodbye to nearly a dozen members of last year’s veteran roster.
The most surprising departure was star goalie Lauren Taraschuk, who was between the pipes as a freshman when the Bisons won nationals.
Taraschuk, the U Sports rookie of the year in 2017-18, had a .927 save percentage and 1.67 goals-against average in 31 games last year. She has three years of eligibility remaining but decided to step away from the team as she was no longer enjoying the game.
"Everyone knew this was coming, aside from a few one-offs," Rempel said on having a team full of first-year players.
"So this is not a surprise to me. This was a part of the plan. The same thing happened six years ago. I’m the kind of coach that likes to start from scratch and build slowly. I’m not about trying to create easy fixes for things. I like the process and this was always a part of the process. I like the fresh faces, I like the energy, I like the willingness to learn. That group accomplished a whole lot of great stuff and I got nothing but respect and fond memories of all of them, but we need to turn the page and turn the attention to what’s in front of us here and that’s a group who wants to put a stamp on the next phase of this program."
Rempel will have to lean heavily on captain Jordyn Zacharias. The forward is one of only two fifth-year players on the team. Zacharias, who already has 12 shots on net in two games and scored the team’s lone goal in Saturday’s 4-1 loss, said it’s a developmental year for the program but the goal is still to win. She realizes to do that she’ll have to help the youngsters on and off the ice
"Yeah, a bit of a different role, but it’s nothing I’m not comfortable with," Zacharias said. "It’s more of a ‘Let’s try and improve as much as we can throughout the year,’ rather than maybe what we’ve had as a mindset the last couple of years. Definitely still confident in how we’re going to do this year, it’s just going to be more of a process and got to trust that process throughout."
Prior to the start of the season, the Bisons played five exhibition games against fellow U Sports programs and they went 1-4 in those contests. Despite some obvious growing pains, Rempel has liked what he’s seen from his young core and believes they could make some noise in the future.
"Well, I mean, they’re talented. That’s No. 1," Rempel said when asked to assess his new recruits.
"No. 2, they’re all very good people. I think we did our homework with bringing these kids in and watching them play a lot. We have personal relationships with many of them. They all really, really want to be here and that’s also a part of it. They’re willing to accept the work already and understand what the process is to be a college-level athlete at this level. All those things combined, you can already see in a month with the team how much they’re enjoying it and how much they’re getting along with the veterans and how quickly those barriers are breaking down.
"That speaks loudly to me."
Rempel gave Fisher a lot of credit for getting the Bisons back to nationals as a rookie head coach, saying, "It was probably a bigger accomplishment than what we were able to do the year before, to be honest with you." Fisher still plays a prominent role on the coaching staff, one that also added former player Venla Hovi as an assistant. Hovi was on the national championship team and also won a bronze medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang with her native country of Finland.
"We’re kind of like hand and glove, to be honest with you," Rempel said of his relationship with Fisher. "My role now as the old dinosaur is how I kind of see myself, is letting some of these young coaches really step forward and have a significant contribution. It’s their time. Venla is obviously coaching with me as well and they’re both very good coaches. Venla’s a very accomplished coach in many ways and she’s just so smart and thinks about the games smartly."
Even with a loaded coaching staff, the Bisons are expected to fly under the radar this year. But Zacharias believes the team will be back to being the talk of the Canada West conference soon.
"I think a lot of teams around the league have already ruled us out," said Zacharias, who had 12 goals and four assists a year ago.
"You can’t predict what the future is going to hold, but I think it’s really bright for this first year coming in, especially if they can keep that core throughout their whole career ahead of them, kind of similar to our ’96 age group that just left. There’s a lot of good talent in that group and especially I think as well, the next year coming in once I’m gone. I think as long as we can help them out as much as we can this year, there’s a very bright future for this team. It could be sooner than we think, you just never know."
The Bisons will play their home opener on Saturday when they welcome the Mount Royal Cougars to Wayne Fleming Arena at 7:30 p.m.
Taylor Allen Reporter
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
While the women’s team starts the 2019-20 season having made trips to the U Sports nationals the past two campaigns, the Bisons men’s hockey team is coming off a disappointing season.
The Herd finished the 2018-19 campaign in second-last place in the Canada West conference with a 6-22 record.
This year’s squad opened the season on a positive note, defeating the visiting Lethbridge Pronghorns 2-0 on Sept. 28. Lethbridge answered back with a 5-4 win the next night.
The Bisons will resume their Canada West schedule this weekend in Calgary when they play a pair of games against the Mount Royal Cougars.
The Herd recently played a couple of exhibition games against U.S. college teams. The team fell 5-1 to the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks on Saturday, and lost 4-3 in a shootout against the Omaha Mavericks Monday night.