Articulate and gracious, well-spoken and studious, Karolina Urban is a multi-talented individual whose abilities have resulted in a remarkable ice hockey career. While the last few seasons have seen Urban juggle competitive play, along with tremendous work as a PhD student, highlighted by time spent devoted to concussion research at the Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Urban’s on-ice endeavors hold strong links to the Greater Toronto Area.
Having first honed her skills in British Columbia, Urban’s hockey journey would take her eastwards, competing at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport level with the Toronto Lady Blues program. Gracing the ice under the tutelage of Winter Games gold medalist Vicky Sunohara, Urban was part of an exciting era with the Lady Blues, helping restore the program’s glory days.
Graduating into the CWHL, Urban would join the Toronto Furies for the 2012-13 season. Part of a roster that included Rebecca Johnston, Christina Kessler, Natalie Spooner and Jennifer Wakefield, playing alongside a new generation of star players, Urban proved she was capable of competing in the professional ranks.
Although Urban would return to Western Canada the following season, pursuing postsecondary studies, she managed to make time for her hockey pursuits. Skating for the new-look Calgary Inferno in their inaugural season (rechristened after their sojourn as Team Alberta), she would help the franchise qualify for their first postseason berth. That eventful season in Calgary was highlighted by the chance to play alongside Chelsea Purcell, who was the first captain in Team Alberta history. Worth noting, Urban would call Purcell a teammate on two other occasions in her career.
Eventually returning to Toronto, Urban remained part of the game in numerous facets. From ball hockey and international play, to appearing in an exhibition fundraiser with the Brampton Thunder and a panel appearance on Puck Talks, Urban’s admirable efforts also involved coaching. Considering such an impressive body of work, coaching would spur Urban’s desire to return to active CWHL play, suiting up with the new-look Markham Thunder in autumn 2017.
“There were a few events that happened over the past few years that really gave me the desire to get back into the game and one of the biggest reasons was and continues to be is to help connect the younger generation of minor hockey players to the CWHL. When I started coaching 3 years ago at Leaside I realized that although young girls were aware of the league they didn’t see it as a possible opportunity.
Among that, a lot of these girls haven’t had the opportunity to meet some of these great role models or have them join them on the ice. So I began bringing CWHL players like Laura Stacey, Erica Howe and Natalie Spooner to chat about their hockey paths but also to expose them to new challenges or drills this past summer. When I started doing this I started to think about playing again and as the season rolled around I decided to give it one last shot. And knowing a lot of the girls on the Markham team it made it an easy choice!”
Having appeared in 20+ plus games this season, Urban has been a portrait of both reliability and consistency. Gaining her first point of the season on October 21, it was also a memorable moment in league history. With the Kunlun Red Star participating in their inaugural CWHL contest, the Thunder would emerge victorious in a 2-1 final. In storybook fashion, Urban would log one of the assists on the game-winning goal scored by Jamie Lee Rattray (her second of the game) in the third period.
For Urban, it was her first point in CWHL play since the 2013-14 season, when she competed with the Calgary Inferno. Gaining the other assists was York University alum Kristen Barbara, recording the first assist in her CWHL career.
The following day, Urban would supply the heroics once again. With the Thunder blanking the Red Star in a 3-0 shutout victory, Urban recorded the helper on Taylor Woods’ first goal of the season. Mirroring Barbara’s feat, Devon Skeats would gain the other assist on Woods’ goal, also the first of her CWHL career. Considering such a strong start, it signified a momentous beginning to Urban’s comeback, while engaging in the chance to be part of a new era in Thunder franchise history.
“The City of Markham has truly been great in drawing interest to the CWHL and to the Thunder. The mayor and local MP’s continue to support the team and hope to continue to grow the team, however I think they are also hopeful it has a positive impact on young females in the community.
I think that I am very lucky to be playing with many girls who have been in the league for many years. Overall I think there are many leaders on the team (Markham) that I look forward to being team-mates with.”
On November 4, 2017, Urban would achieve another milestone, as she scored her first goal as a member of the Markham Thunder. Contesting the Calgary Inferno on their home ice, it would be the lone goal for Markham in a 3-1 loss. Scored at the 19:27 mark of the second on rookie goaltender Lindsay Post, with assists credited to Rattray and Jenna McParland, it tied the score at 1-1 apiece, heading into intermission.
In spite of the Inferno scoring twice in the third, gaining the victory, there was a unique feeling of Urban’s career coming full circle. Prior to her comeback, Urban’s last season in the CWHL took place in 2013-14 with the Calgary Inferno. Akin to the Thunder’s rebranding this season, Urban joining the Inferno representing a significant makeover. Prior to the 13-14 season, the Inferno were known as Team Alberta, sporting a gold and navy blue color scheme.
Coincidentally, Urban’s last goal in CWHL play took place against Team Alberta. During her rookie season with the Toronto Furies, she scored the final goal in a 5-0 blanking versus Alberta. Taking place on November 30, 2012 versus backstop Kathy Desjardins, the assist was credited to Tessa Bonhomme. Adding to the sense of coincidence is the fact that all of Urban’s goals with the Furies were scored against Alberta.
While the league’s complexion has changed significantly since that season, Urban is part of a landmark season in league history. With the league having introduced player compensation (a topic that Urban wrote about for The Athletic) along with expansion, such elements are only part of a bigger narrative. Undoubtedly, the quality of talent continues to enhance the image of the league, while the fact that many more full-time positions have taken place, a fascinating evolution is taking place. As Urban discusses, these aspects have made her return to the league one filled with progress:
“I think in general the game has continued to grow on the ice but the growth off the ice is something I have to mention. The league now has full-time GMs that grows the fan base, sponsorship opportunities, and not to mention the little details that have been put into making the environment feel more professional (this is based on the GM’s role).
For example, the swag we were given, food/ snacks before games, player events, social media presence and so on. There also seems to be more brand recognition and interest in growing the game in general.
In addition, I think with the joining of the Chinese teams it’s really taken the league to a whole new level. The excitement of growing a global game and introduction to a new market has really given the CWHL a fresh and compelling story to get sponsors behind.”
Urban’s other goal as a member of the Thunder took place in a unique location. With the arrival of two expansion teams from China this season, the Kunlun Red Star and the Vanke Rays, Urban and her teammates made the trek across the Pacific to participate in a four-game road trip in Shenzen. In a 5-2 loss to the Rays on November 19, the Thunder’s second game in China, Urban scored the game’s final goal, as Nicole Brown recorded her first assist of the season, while alternate captain Dania Simmonds logged her third.
Considering that the seasons in between the Inferno and the Thunder saw Urban’s career involve international play, the chance to compete in China is of great significance. Of note, Urban donned Canada’s jersey in a gold medal outcome at the 2015 ISBHF Worlds in Zug, Switzerland.
Between 2014 and 2017, Urban also spent time with the Kazakhstan-based club Aisulu Almaty, which competes in the EWHL. In both scenarios, Urban had the opportunity to call Purcell a teammate, as both were tremendous ambassadors for Canada’s game overseas. Ecstatic over the chance to be part of such a historic time for the league with regular season play in China, it possesses a twofold effect. Not only has the experience added to Urban’s remarkable legacy of international hockey, it also adds to her empowering goal of demonstrating to the next generation of women’s hockey players that the game holds the potential to achieve their dreams and make their mark beyond their traditional borders,
“I am still in awe when I look back on all the opportunities that hockey has brought me over the years. I have played games in Kazakhstan, Hungry, Italy, Slovakia, Finland, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, and of course here and the States. But now getting to add China to the list is pretty surreal. The global impact of women’s hockey is incredible.
The exposure that these young girls are getting to hockey speaks to the beauty of sports and the game of hockey. Hearing about how many of these countries look to Canada and the respect they have for our Olympic/national athletes is quite inspiring. I have been very lucky to grow up in a country that gives young girls access to sports like hockey. It is a big part of who I am and I am beyond grateful for all the opportunities that hockey has brought me in life.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Jess Bazal and Dave Holland
To read Urban’s article on player compensation, please refer to: