Will Gordon, Huskie Athletics
SASKATOON - For Kaitlin Willoughby participating in the 2017 FISU in Almaty is big deal. The Winter Universiade is the largest global winter multi-sports event for students. Think the Olympics but for student-athletes.
“It is an honor to be selected to participate in the Winter Universiade as a member of U SPORTS,” Willoughby said. Heralding from Prince Albert, the Canadian hockey dream of playing for Team Canada has come true for her.
The chance to play in the Winter Universiade has always been on the horizon. Huskie alumni Cara Wooster practiced with the Huskies in Willoughby’s first year in preparation for Trentino 2013. Willoughby’s former teammate Julia Flinton went to the 2015 event. Now, in her fourth year, it’s her turn.
Thus, Willoughby joins the ranks of an elite Canadian hockey calibre. This is a consistent placing team, but they’re looking to take back gold. Canada lost to Russia in 2015. With Russia in the other pool, it might just be a rematch for who takes gold.
As the Huskie’s women team continues to grow in prestige, Willoughby is arguably one of the best players yet. She debuted strong, winning Rookie of the Year in both Canada West and U SPORTS—the first Huskie in the women’s hockey history to take the national award. Her goal scoring is integral on the team. Year after year, she is among the top scorers. She’s on route to take 2nd place in all-time goals in Huskie women’s history records.
These accomplishments caught the attention of the FISU coaching staff, but Willoughby still had to earn her way onto the team in an increasingly competitive scene.
For the FISU, the men’s hockey team gets formed by a single conference on a rotational cycle. The women’s team is far more ambitious. U SPORTS works directly with Hockey Canada now, exposing university players to the national program. That means a stricter tryout process. For starters, every U SPORTS team nominates candidates. The FISU coaching staff, made up of coaches across the conferences, then selected their short-list.
“I was overwhelmed with excitement,” Willoughby said, talking about when she learned she had been selected for tryouts. She emphasised the importance and excitement of the selection process. “This year was the first time that Hockey Canada invited this team (U SPORTS) to be involved with their summer camps.”
In July, Willoughby joined her potential teammates in Calgary for a ten-day development camp. They joined the U22 Team Canada Selection Camp as Canada prepped for exhibition games against the United States. Willoughby and the other student-athletes did more than just play with and against the U22 team. Sweden’s National Women selection team was also present at the development camp.
“This camp was an amazing experience for me. I got to play against some of the top female hockey players in our country, I received great feedback on how to improve my game, and most importantly I made friendships and memories that will last a lifetime.”
A week after the camp, Willoughby learned she had made the final roster. Now, in the days before the games begin, she’s an alternate captain for Team Canada. After all the hard work, she said it felt rewarding to make it into the Winter Universiade, though with a teammate’s caveat.
“I can’t wait to be reunited with all the [Universiade] girls and get on the ice with them, but at the same time I am also upset to be missing four games with my team back at home.”
Willoughby and the rest of Team Canada set their aims on gold at Almaty, Kazakhstan beginning January 28th, playing China in the ice hockey tournament opener.