Among the accomplished individuals breaking barriers on the 2016 Most Influential Women List from the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport (CAAWS), the future was also proudly represented. Recognizing women who are making an empowering difference on the local, national and international level, Winnipeg’s Cassandra Groen was among the four recipients of the Ones to Watch Under 30.
Joining Groen on this list included a pair of competitors who tugged at Canadian fans heartstrings at the 2016 Rio Summer Games. Penny Oleksiak, who established herself as Canada’s sweetheart after a record breaking performance in Rio with four medals, plus Melissa Bishop, who balances a grueling training schedule as a world class track and field sprinter along with community outreach. Rounding out the group is Alycia Bannon, whose GO Adventure Company teaches children to appreciate the great outdoors and engage in physical fitness.
“It felt amazing to have received this kind of recognition. Having my name up there with all these Olympians made me feel like a great deal. I honestly was not looking for recognition for what I do as a coach or athlete. I do it because I am passionate about it. Receiving this recognition does make me feel like I am making a difference though.”
Only 19 years old, Groen has made history as the youngest female coach in Winnipeg AAA boys Hockey. Serving on the coaching staff for the Bantam 2 Winnipeg Hawk AAA team, working with male coaches that are much older, Groen’s work ethic has served as a crucial factor in gaining the respect of both players and coaches alike.
Such an opportunity has also propelled Groen into an amazing group of female coaches that are breaking barriers in men’s sports, eradicating stereotypes. In the last few years, women such as Becky Hammons, a full-time assistant coach with the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, and Nancy Lieberman-Cline served as head coaches in the NBA’s Summer League.
The last two preseasons in the National Football League have seen Dr. Jen Welter and Liz Sowers (both gold medalists at the IFAF Women’s Worlds) serve coaching internships with the Arizona Cardinals and Atlanta Falcons, the first women in league history to do so. Adding to this empowering momentum has seen while Sarah Thomas became a full-time female NFL official in 2016.
During the 2016-17 season, hockey has also seen two remarkable women make inroads. Kori Cheverie, a Clarkson Cup champion in 2014, became the first woman in Canadian university hockey to serve in a full-time coaching role with a men’s team. This historic hire involved serving as an assistant coach at Toronto’s Ryerson University, who play their home games out of Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens.
The Phoenix Coyotes would add to this remarkable run of women making hockey history by hiring Dawn Braid, the first female on an NHL coaching staff. Of course, Groen now becomes part of this amazing group of women, joining a very historic sports movement which is defined by more than just opportunity, but equality and fairness,
“I am honoured to even have been compared to them in this question. I am very proud to join their legacy; it is great that just by doing what I have a passion to do I'm breaking barriers for younger females who aspire to do the same. I think it would be amazing to one day be an NHL coach, and if the opportunity ever came around I wouldn't pass it up.”
In reflecting on the earliest days of the experience with Winnipeg AAA, Groen points out that the players and their parents were essential in making this opportunity a reality. Issues of gender and age were not deemed an issue, an important endorsement which ensured for an encouraging beginning.
Groen’s keen knowledge of the goaltending position had made an impression on Winnipeg AAA head coach, Ryan Didoshak. Having competed with the Oak Park Raiders in the Winnipeg Women’s High School Hockey League, Groen was a workhorse goaltender. Standing between the pipes in 55 regular season games over three seasons, amassing 22 wins, her enthusiasm for the position also translated into a spot on Manitoba’s provincial ringette team.
Prepared to make what could have been perceived as a risky decision, the courage of Didoshak’s conviction allowed Groen a chance to be part of something meaningful, subsequently making history,
“The other coaches, the parents and all of the boys were very respectful right from the beginning. They made it as if there was no gender or age difference. Of course, at the very beginning before anyone knows you, you get the shocked reaction that such a young female could even be qualified for the position.
The most difficult part of it is finding a coaching staff that will take a female coach on board. Luckily, I had been in a spring camp with the head coach, Ryan Didoshak, who had seen my knowledge of goaltending and player development. I am very grateful for this.”
Coaching duties with Winnipeg AAA hockey only represents a fraction of Groen’s sporting contributions. In addition to her focus as a full-time Kinesiology student, she is also a volunteer with Sledge Hockey Manitoba while remaining faithful to her roots in ringette, currently serving in a role where she trains the goalies for the provincial ringette team.
Having also played for the provincial team herself, Groen understands the demands of competition and the mental toughness required to excel. Such skills have translated well into the coaching role at Winnipeg AAA that gained her national acclaim, where she can empathically understand the academic and athletic pressures on the players. Undoubtedly, the playing experience at an elite level simultaneously served an invaluable preparation for her eventual future as a coach.
“Being an elite athlete you have a variety of different coaches, and with each coach they each have their own coaching philosophy. Watching the different philosophies throughout the years you notice what works for each individual athlete.
This helped me bring a variety of philosophies together in order to benefit each player on the team from my coaching. I also know what it feels like to be in high pressure situations and know different strategies that would help me and the strategies that would help my Teammates. This benefits my coaching because I can give the different options to individuals to help them release or cope with the pressures.”
With a ringette career had spanned 11 years, Groen’s highlights have also included a bronze medal at the Western Canadian Ringette Championships along with the honour of the 2015 Manitoba Ringette Association High-Five Scholarship. Such an impressive body of work in the sport reached its pinnacle in 2014 with a performance that added to the province’s sporting lore.
Competing with the Winnipeg Magic 19 AA ringette team under the tutelage of Rob Walker, Groen competed at the Tim Horton’s Canadian Ringette Championship in April 2014. Staged for over six days in Regina, Saskatchewan, there were over 44 teams competing with golden ambitions.
Alternating goaltending duties with Jaime Simpson of St. Norbert, Groen, who was 17 at the time, gained the starting position in both the Under-19 semifinals and the finals. Showing nerves of steel in a very demanding tournament, the finals may have been Groen’s finest hour.
Falling behind early in the final to a team from Alberta, Groen remained poised, providing her team with a chance to win. Emerging victorious in a 5-4 final for the title, Groen’s efforts between the pipes helped set the tone for a team whose comeback win truly relied on a collaborative effort. Of note, Simpson and Groen would compete in a combined a total of 11 games over six grueling days.
Named to the Tournament Second All-Star team, it was a fitting honor for Groen. Sharing in the honors was blueliner Nicole Desrosiers, also a Second Team honoree, plus Shannon Sarahs, the only Manitoban who gained First Team recognition.
Also finding time to work with the St. James female goaltenders, Groen is truly a marvel. Devoting more than 30 hours a week in her numerous capacities, this admirable individual embodies the potential for women to continue making significant inroads in sport.
As her AAA coaching experience serves as one of the hallmarks in her young sporting career, there is no question that it has also provided her with the confidence to make an even greater impact as a ringette coach.
Through it all, Groen remains humble, acknowledging that there is still much to learn. Testament to her efforts as a coach, dedicated to providing a positive experience for her players, while fostering a sense of both respect and friendship.
Dedicated to ensuring that she could be the best coach possible, is best evidenced by working with a young goaltender whose style she had not been familiar with. In spite of this initial setback, Groen assiduously delved into such technique, displaying the character and strong leadership that encompassed some of the key values of her CAAWS honour. Certainly, this dedication displays that the future brings with it the potential for many more exciting achievements for Groen, whose presence has served to enrich the Winnipeg hockey community in all its facets.
“I think that any experience working with different teams helps out. Goaltending is a very unique position. No two goalies have the exact same stance or style. You can have goalies with similar styles, but there will always be differences.
This season with my two goaltenders they have very different styles, working with my goaltender Dominic Jacobson was a learning experience though. He is a goaltender that has a style more like Johnathan Quick, which is a style I have never taught or played.
So, I learnt a lot through research, videos and from Dominic himself. So to answer your question, it could very well help me in the sense that if I encounter a ringette goalie with a Jonathan Quick style I will have knowledge of it.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Images supplied by Cassandra Groen