Holding the unique distinction of having stood between the pipes in both the NCAA and Canadian Interuniversity Sport (now rebranded as U Sports), Briar Bache’s collegiate hockey odyssey represented both achievement and history. From the outset, Bache was part of Lindenwood University’s inaugural season at the NCAA Division I level, while her final season at the collegiate level represented one of the greatest turnarounds in the U SPORTS lore, as the Concordia Stingers went from fourth in the conference in 2016 to fourth in the nation in 2017.
Raised in Barrie, Ontario, Bache was a two-sport star in high school, capturing Team MVP honors in ice hockey, while also showing bravura by participating in flag football. Along with experience as a member of the PWHL’s Aurora Panthers, Bache established herself as a durable goaltender, highly focused on consistently play and total effort.
As Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri, represented the next stage in Bache’s athletic endeavors, the chance to be part of the Lady Lions roster brought with it an emphasized meaning. While the 2011-12 campaign represented the ninth in program history, there was a tremendous sense of progression as the program made the leap into Division I hockey.
Competing as an independent program during that first season, Bache played for head coach Vince O’Mara, who eventually served in that role for the first 11 seasons in Lady Lions history. One of 14 freshmen on the Lady Lions roster in that landmark season, Bache was proud to have been part of such a historic time. The reminiscent reflections on suiting up for the Lady Lions go beyond the thrill of athletic competition, emphasizing the sense of community that defined the experience,
“The thing I liked about Lindenwood the best was how small the school and the town were. You could hardly walk anywhere without seeing at least one person you knew. It was a very friendly and welcoming environment that, even if you didn’t know somebody and we were both wearing Lions athletic gear, we would say hi to each other.
With that also came having town fans at our games. At Concordia, the only fans we got were some parents of our girls, and maybe a few student-athlete friends that we had. Whereas when I played for Lindenwood, we had local fans coming to watch and support us. We were the only women’s NCAA hockey team within an 8-hour drive, and most home games none of our parents were able to make it to, so it was really awesome to get local members of our community out there to cheer us on.”
In her eight appearances during the Lady Lions inaugural journey in Division I, Bache would start on the road for seven of them, with her NCAA debut taking place in an October 7, 2011 home date versus the Robert Morris Colonials, an eventual conference rival in College Hockey America. As a side note, the Lady Lions would only have four home dates during said season.
The only opportunity for the Lady Lions fan base to catch Bache in action on home ice took place on November 13, 2011. Against the Robert Morris Colonials, a gallant effort was provided, recording 41 saves, in what would be the final home date in the Lady Lions season.
Bache’s freshman sojourn resulted in a series of admirable performances, recording three games of at least 40 saves, highlighted by 46 against the Bemidji State Beavers on November 10, 2011. Although her first six games resulted in three no-decisions and three losses, she managed to end her first NCAA season on a strong note. Between January 14 and February 11, 2012, Bache won three starts in a row, registering a cumulative total of 78 saves.
With each victory taking place on the road, a well-travelled Bache showed tremendous resolve as the Lady Lions were road warriors in the latter half of the 2011-12 season. The milestone of her first win was a hard fought 4-3 final taking place on January 14, 2012 in St. Paul, Minnesota against Bethel University. Recording 41 saves to secure the win, it was the third performance of the season which saw Bache record at least 40 saves in a conest. Emerging victorious exactly one week later, Bache needed only 26 saves as a road trip in Connecticut saw the Lady Lions topple Sacred Heart.
The final game for the Lady Lions in 2011-12 would see Bache gain the honor of being named the starting goaltender. Taking on Saint Michael’s College in South Burlington, Vermont in a two-game series, Bache would backstop the Lady Lions to the win, completing the sweep. Adding to the feeling of achievement was the fact that the Lady Lions scored a season-high nine goals, culminating their historic season on an encouraging note.
Although Bache would not finish her collegiate career with the Lady Lions, there was a strong sense of pride in helping to launch the program into Division I play, setting a foundation for future glories. The opportunity for Bache to grow as a player and gain new experiences would serve as the hallmark of her time contributing towards the development of Division I ice hockey in Missouri, absorbing what transpired with remarkable maturity,
“I am not sure if I would say I have a “favourite” moment, but I really enjoyed the entire experience. We came in as 14 rookies to a team who had never played an NCAA, let alone a Division 1 game before (they were ACHA beforehand). That gave us the opportunity to learn and grow as a program, but also as individuals.
Personally, being there, 16 hours away, really helped me appreciate the whole experience, and made me even more grateful for what this sport has done for me and where it has given me the chance to go. Although in the end it did not work out for me at Lindenwood, I still am grateful and humbled by the experience I had there and I do not regret one moment of that decision.”
Although Bache was inactive during the 2012-13 campaign, a return north of the border would take place in the summer of 2013. While the decision was focused on academic reasons, the fire to continue her hockey career was far from extinguished. Part of a significant trend featuring highly talented competitors participating in both the NCAA and U Sports levels, Bache would make a significant impact on both sides of the border.
Undoubtedly, there are significant differences in the game on both sides of the border. At the US level, outdoor games have become part of its lore, while attendance of more than 10,000 fans for special events in regions such as Minnesota and Wisconsin are not uncommon. While not all collegiate markets in the US are as successful, the game continues to develop, as access to resources represents a luxury that is not prevalent for all Canadian universities.
“I would say the biggest difference between playing university hockey in Canada and in the US all comes down to the budget. The NCAA receives so much funding that there are certain benefits that come along with that. The athletic facilities in the US that we played at were unbelievable. A lot of the rinks that we played in were nicer than junior boys’ rinks here. And it wasn’t just for hockey. Every university team had access to amazing facilities.
Even when I played for Lindenwood, the school received a portion of the budget to go towards just redoing our locker room. Additionally, with a larger budget comes more personnel. For example, at Lindenwood my first year, our strength and conditioning coach was responsible for our team, men’s hockey and baseball. My second year, he was only responsible for the women’s hockey team.
Given that, we would have fitness programs made for us based on each players’ individual position (i.e. goaltenders and forwards would not have the same program) and 1RM (one rep max). Furthermore, fitness testing was based on the sport. At Concordia, there is only one strength and conditioning coach who takes care of all of the teams.
Fitness programs are made general to the sport, and fitness testing was universal for every athlete at the school (all sports did the same fitness testing). We were also able to travel further and for longer, with no real concern for the budget. In the US, there is so much focus on athletics and athletes themselves, that we are able to be treated better and be more privileged than in Canada, again all coming down to budget size.”
Although the Canadian university game appeals to more of a niche fan base, composed primarily of friends and family, along with a shorter schedule compared to the US, there is a rapid increase in the quality of the game. Said quality is quickly translating into a pipeline of elite prospects for professional women’s ice hockey. With a growing number of prized recruits and NCAA transfers, along with an emergence of elite talent making their mark internationally in the Winter Universiade, U Sports is quickly becoming the best kept secret in hockey.
“Another big difference however, is the amount of games we play. Especially in the RSEQ, we only play 20 regular season game – and those are all in conference. In the States, we played way more games that also included out of conference games throughout the season. I loved doing that because it was great to play against a bunch of different schools and see difference teams and playing styles. In Canada, we get very used to playing the same teams over and over again. Lastly of course, there is the difference in eligibility playing years as well. In Canada, we get five years and in the States, they only get four.”Finding Montreal’s Concordia University to be an ideal fit, quickly becoming acquainted with the entire roster and coaching staff within her first day visiting the campus, even gaining the opportunity for an impromptu practice, it was the positive first impression that set the stage for the newest chapter in Bache’s hockey odyssey. Such a move would prove beneficial, quickly yielding remarkable results.
Wearing the number 32 with the Stingers, Bache boasted a save percentage better than .900 in her first two seasons (2014-15, 2015-16) with the Stingers. Specializing in Therapeutic Recreation, she shared goaltending duties with Katherine Purchase of Halifax. Providing a solid goaltending tandem, it represented one of the hallmarks of their careers with the Stingers.
In the aftermath of the 2014-15 campaign, Purchase led all goaltender in the CIS in goals against average. Along with Bache, the two were the co-recipients of the 2015 Concordia women’s ice hockey Most Valuable Player Award, allowing just 43 combined goals in 20 regular season games. Along with third string goaltender Frédérike Berger-Lebel, it was a situation where the mutual respect between all three motivated each to be better backstops.
With such an effective combination, Bache and Purchase allowed the Stingers continuous opportunities to be capable of competing with the other CIS clubs based in the hockey hotbed of Montreal; the McGill Martlets and Carabins de Montreal. Undoubtedly, the strong level of mutual respect between the two also set the tone for a positive team culture.
Appearing in nine games between the pipes during her inaugural season with the Stingers, Bache logged almost 500 minutes of ice time, posting a solid goals against average of 2.79, while ranking 25th in the nation with a respectable .913 save percentage.
Making her CIS debut in an October 17, 2014 road contest against the rival Carabins de Montreal, it was a 22-save performance in a visceral 5-1 loss. Showing tremendous resolve, Bache would bounce back, gaining two wins in a row. Of note, her first career CIS win would take place against the Carleton Ravens on home ice, a 4-2 win on November 2. Just five days later, Bache would lead the way in a stunning 1-0 road shutout of the nationally ranked McGill Martlets, recording an impressive 27 saves.
While Purchase would handle the majority of the starts for the remainder of the season, there was another opportunity for Bache to shine. Looking for redemption against the Carabins, Bache made a strong statement in the final game of the season. With the February 22, 2015 contest on home ice, Bache was solid for 65 minutes, making 36 saves in a highly emotional 4-3 victory.
The following season (2015-16), Bache managed to record key wins that helped propel the Stingers into the postseason. Despite making only six starts, she would average 20 saves per appearance, while managing a respectable 2.37 goals against average.
Bache would prove to be at her finest in the month of January 2016. Gaining three consecutive starts, each effort would result in victories. Such a winning streak included back-to-back wins against Ottawa’s Carleton Ravens. Starting with a 3-1 road victory on January 17, Bache would only need 10 saves to blank the Ravens one week later, prevailing by the narrowest of margins, 1-0. Both proved to be key wins for the Stingers, putting more distance between the two clubs in the battle for the fourth and final playoff spot in the RSEQ Conference.
Returning to Ottawa on January 29, Bache recorded 38 saves as the Stingers doubled up the nationally ranked Gee-Gees (8) by a 4-2 tally. Recognized for her efforts against a highly aggressive offensive attack, it would also result in one of the most cherished highlights of her Stingers career. Bestowed the honor of the Concordia Female Athlete of the Week, awarded on February 2, 2016, it was the perfect ending to a highly memorable month. Undoubtedly, such superlative efforts during this stretch proved to be the turning point towards the Stingers’ return to the postseason.
Continued success against the Carleton Ravens actually carried over into Bache’s final season with the Stingers. As 2016-17 would represent one of the most exciting seasons in recent Stingers history, she enjoyed a pair of home wins against the Ravens, achieving milestones in each win. From the outset, a November 6 contest saw Bache need only eight saves for the shutout, as the Stingers prevailed by a convincing 3-0 tally. The shutout result would stand as the final one in Bache’s proud Stingers career.
Coincidentally, her final win in the maroon and gold of the Stingers would take place later in the season against the Ravens. As both clubs were fighting once again for a playoff berth, Bache made 18 saves as the Stingers managed to outscore the Ravens once again, prevailing in a 3-2 final on February 12, 2017.
In spite of the fact that Bache would not see any ice time between the pipes during the postseason, Bache’s positive attitude and focus on team success over individual aspirations helped to define the exceptional team culture that would continue its string of inspiring performances. Beginning with an epic first-round upset of the defending national champion Carabins de Montreal, the Stingers not only advanced to the RSEQ Conference Finals, they simultaneously qualified for the U SPORTS national championships.
Building on this remarkable momentum, the Stingers emerged as the feel-good story at Nationals. Contested down the 401 Highway in Napanee, Ontario, the chance to be part of such a Cinderella team provided Bache with an epic finale to her proud career. Reaching the medal round, after eliminating the OUA champion Guelph Gryphons, the Stingers assembled an admirable effort against the top-seeded University of British Columbia Thunderbirds.
“Having the opportunity to play at Nationals was absolutely amazing. Coming in my first year and only having five league wins, to leaving four years later finishing 4th in the nation is such an achievement. It was a perfect way to end my hockey career, and along with the three other graduating players this season, I think I can say that we are all so proud to be a part of the team that put Concordia back on the map.
This season marked the first time that Concordia has made it to Nationals since 2005 and this year marked a milestone. I know that this program is going to continue to go places and I am fortunate that I was able to be a member of that team. Not just this season, but all of the girls I am fortunate to have played with over my four years here worked so hard and accomplished so much that lead up to that moment.
Coach Les Lawton has had so much success with this program over his 30+ years as head coach, and he was such a huge part of the team’s success this year as well. Being able to experience a National tournament and having him there for every moment of that week is such an honour to me, and one that I will never forget.”
In a career that saw Bache establish herself as one of the most dependable backup goaltenders in Canadian university hockey, always making her minutes count significantly when guarding the Concordia crease, many of her stirring displays were built on preparation and a solid work ethic, testament towards setting a positive example. With skills that brought her from Missouri to Montreal, experiencing numerous elements of the game in all its unique facets, the only aspect that can overshadows Bache’s on-ice efforts are her enthusiasm for the game, which are poised to leave a lasting impression on her remaining teammates.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Marie-Pier Cloutier, Brianna Thicke, Lady Lions image obtained from Facebook