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Paving the way: Donna-Lynn Rosa’s mark on women’s hockey

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In the modern resurgence of women’s ice hockey in the 1990s, the stage was set for a range of legends to rise and leave an indelible mark for the game’s future. With a career that spanned the course of three decades as player and coach, Donna-Lynn Rosa is certainly worthy of distinction as an iconic member of this era.

PAVING THE WAY FOR CANADIANS IN THE NCAA

Having first established herself as a multi-sport star at Mississauga’s St. Martin’s High School, gaining a phenomenal 25 letters in eight different sports, her senior season would culminate with the Athlete of the Year Award. Recruited to Boston’s Northeastern University in 1985, becoming one of the first Canadian women to play NCAA hockey, it marked a pioneering chapter in her career, setting the table for future generations to reap the rewards of elite level hockey. Succeeding decades would see the Huskies recruit elite talent from North America and Europe, including Kendall Coyne-Schofield, Chelsey Goldberg, Chanda Gunn, Rachel Llanes, Shelley Looney, Jamie Totten, plus Swiss superstar backstop Florence Schelling and Czech forwards Denisa Krizova and Lucie Povova, among others.

Belonging to an era of Huskies brilliance that featured the likes of Tina Cardinale and Kelly Dyer, both members of the Team USA roster in 1992, plus Susie Perkins and Marge Sanford, among others, Rosa’s time with the program also saw her skate alongside a number of Canadians. Including the likes of Louise Duguay, Fiona Rice, a fellow native of Mississauga and longtime friend who was a teammate in every one of her four seasons, plus Vicky Sunohara, a future teammate with the Brampton Thunder.

While the modern game sees scouts attend tournaments throughout North America, with the IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championships representing another invaluable source of rich talent, the era of women’s ice hockey in the 90s was of a far different complexion. The role that Rosa and Rice, among others, played in opening the door for Canadians to gain consideration in NCAA competition ushered in an exciting new era that merits a special place in history.

“Fiona Rice and I attended together, both from Mississauga, same hockey team and same school. We worked hard to find a school that would take a look at us. We did not have scouts back then coming to Canada so much.

We had heard of players who had gone to the US but did not know at the time that we were among the first Canadians to play NCAA. We both felt great pride and pressure to perform at our best representing our country in many ways. We were indebted to Don McLeod for seeing us, trusting in us and coaching us so well.”

NORTHEASTERN HUSKIES CAREER

Rosa’s freshman season set the tone for an empowering career, as the program enjoyed a sterling won-loss mark of 19-4-1, highlighted by Canadians Duguay and Rice leading the team in scoring. Qualifying for the Eastern College Athletic Conference (ECAC) Championship game, suffering a visceral 6-3 loss versus New Hampshire, there was a strong feeling that the roots were firmly entrenched for greater years ahead.

Recording 16 goals and 17 assists as a sophomore, Rosa emerged as a significant contributor in a landmark season, which saw Rice and her place third and fourth in team scoring. As the Huskies soared to a 23-win season, a program record that would be broken before their graduation, compared to only three losses. Once again, the season culminated with a place in the ECAC Championship Game versus New Hampshire.

Despite suffering another loss to their archrivals, on the opposite end of a 3-2 final, a third consecutive trip to the Championship Game would not result in a loss. Rosa amassed an amazing 43 points, on the strength of 22 goals, while Rice increased her point total from 39 to 46, ranking third and fourth in team scoring for the second straight season.

Including a superlative 59 points by Cardinale, while Dyer and Sue Guay formed one of the best goaltending duos in university hockey, the result was an undefeated mark of 26-0-1, with Sunohara leading the team with a program record 78 points. Defeating the Providence Friars in a 5-3 final to win the elusive ECAC Championship, Rosa recorded a hat trick in the first period, affirming her status as an ECAC All-Star.

With the captain’s C adorning Rosa’s Huskies sweater as a senior, part of a leadership triumvirate including Kelly Dyer and Ruth Rosenthal, it marked a third straight season of 20+ wins, finishing with a sparkling 22-3-0, complemented by a spot on the ECAC All-Star Team. As a side note, facing off against the Friars in the ECAC Championship Game, the result was a 4-2 win, signifying a crowing touch for the dual paths of Rosa and Rice, whose 181 career points stands third all-time in program history. Boasting a cumulative total of 90 wins in their four seasons, with just 11 losses and three ties, their place in program lore served as essential during an era of champions.

“Our years at Northeastern were among the best hockey years we ever experienced. The professionalism was amazing, and we were treated like elite athletes. It was a very special time.”

Rosa (second from left) in her senior season as Huskies captain (Image obtained from Facebook)

HUSKIES HALL OF FAME

Fittingly, Rosa’s body of work placed her in a prestigious summit, earning the honor of a place in the Huskies Hall of Fame. Belonging to the Class of 2009 it marked an apex which accentuated her place in the game’s history.

“I am honoured to be part of the Hall of Fame for such a well-respected institution. Northeastern’s learning environment was welcoming, supportive and challenging and landing in a new city in a new country came with some uncertainty.

Being part of the women’s hockey program helped me to feel at home and feel supported – I had an instant family away from home. In my first year, away from family for the first time, I was invited to a teammate’s house for Thanksgiving, and that was huge.

My American family and friends will always be my tribe. The hockey was taken seriously, supported by the administration, and so we had great practice time and what we thought were amazing amenities (albeit they are so much better now).”

In 2018, Rosa earned another accolade, landing on the 40th Anniversary Beanpot Team. Joined by former teammates Cardinale, Dyer, and Rice, whose Huskies career includes the prestige of the 1987 Beanpot MVP Award. Other Huskies alumnae named to the Anniversary Team included Kendall Coyne, Shelley Looney, Jill Toney, Hilary Witt plus Don MacLeod, who served as head coach from 1981-1992, claiming an incredible eight Beanpots in his distinguished career.

POST-UNIVERSITY PLAYING CAREER

Following a series of four fantastic seasons garbed in the Northeastern colours, Rosa returned to her home province, the theme of being a pioneer continuing to play a prevalent role in her athletic narrative. Among the players invited to try out for Canada’s roster at the inaugural IIHF Women’s World Championships in 1990, Rosa was the last cut. As a side note, Huskies head coach Don MacLeod served in the same capacity for Team USA, who qualified for the gold medal game. Although she would serve in a broadcast role for The Sports Network (TSN), a player of her talent remained in demand at the club level.

The earliest facets of Rosa’s career in club play found its roots in the Central Ontario Women’s Hockey League (COWHL), which would metamorphose into the original NWHL. First skating for the Guelph Eagles, the likes of Cindy Cryderman, Jennifer Dewar and Amy Turek skated alongside Rosa. Followed by skating with her hometown Mississauga Chiefs, one of her teammates during the 1993-94 season, her first with the club, included a teenaged Cassie Campbell.

Of note, the nascent league was also home to an incredible who’s who in women’s ice hockey, including future Hockey Hall of Famers Geraldine Heaney and Angela James. Along with the likes of other empowering and iconic figures such as Lori Dupuis, Allyson Fox, Marianne Grnak, Andria Hunter, Margot Page and Cheryl Pounder, there was another unique tinge of coincidence. League rivals Stephanie Kay, Karen Nystrom and Laura Schuler would later call Rosa a teammate with the NWHL’s Brampton Thunder.

Garbed in the Brampton Thunder jersey with copper trim, Rosa in action versus the Beatrice Aeros. (Image obtained from Facebook)

Skating for the Thunder, one of the longest running club teams in Canadian women’s hockey history, Rosa was part of an exciting new movement, competing in the inaugural season of NWHL hockey. Developed in the aftermath of the Nagano Winter Games, the NWHL marked a significant evolution in the game’w growth, with American and European players also among the ranks of world-class players. The Thunder roster included a loaded team of talent consisting of Dupuis, Jayna Hefford, fellow Huskies alum Sunohara and American superstar Sue Merz. As a side note, all of the aforementioned were competitors at Nagano.

Participating in such a key time in the game’s evolution, another key facet in gaining mainstream acceptance and expanding credibility, the original NWHL certainly supplied a Major League feeling. With contests from the inaugural season airing on Women’s Television Network (WTN), featuring the highly notable Lisa Bowes on the broadcast team, it signified the potential of club hockey as not only viable, but a game capable of maintaining the high quality evidenced at the Winter Games.

Collection of medals highlight Donna-Lynn Rosa’s magnificent career (Image obtained from Facebook)

“Coming off playing in university I felt that I had played at the highest level. The NWHL aimed to set the bar high and treat women as professional athletes. We all felt like we were part of making history. We felt like the leadership of the NWHL had the idea to grow the sport into a pro league under Susan Fennell’s vision and leadership as the first Commissioner.

My years with the Brampton Thunder were highlighted by having the young fans have access to me and other elite players so that we were role models. Signing autographs in the lobby after our games was, without doubt, one of the highest compliments I ever received as an athlete.

Seeing these young women go out and become strong athletes, good people, and well-rounded citizens, has been among my greatest sources of pride – especially the ones who also attended my hockey camp ‘Shooting Stars”’.”

COACHING CAREER

Rosa’s experience with the Thunder extended beyond competition. Eventually becoming head coach, Rosa enjoyed the opportunity to lead the franchise to the summit of an NWHL championship. Fittingly, when the CWHL materialized in the autumn of 2007, rising from the ashes of the defunct NWHL, Rosa maintained her role with the Thunder, reaching greater heights.

In a season which saw a highly talented Thunder roster capture the inaugural CWHL championship, as Molly Engstrom scored in overtime versus the Mississauga Chiefs, it was not the only notable highlight. Reaching the gold medal game of the 2008 Esso Women’s Nationals, the last in event history, the Thunder faced off against the Chiefs once again. With overtime required once again, it was the Chiefs that emerged victorious, as Cherie Piper scored the golden goal. Undeniably, the rivalry between the Thunder and Chiefs in 2007-08 was one of the most fabled in the game’s history, testament to the superlative quality of talent, emphasizing the growing importance of club play.

Rosa (back row, second from right) part of the historic Brampton Thunder CWHL championship team from 2008. (Image obtained from: https://issuu.com/hockeymedia/docs/whockey_review_2008_byhockeymedia)

In Rosa’s hockey narrative, the chance to become a head coach burnished an important legacy. Although there was a growing number of women accepting coaching opportunities, the presence of star players in this role had not yet taken shape. The fact that Rosa was taking on such a position with a team that she had once played for, having authority over players she once skated with, represented a very different and unique challenge.

Certainly, Rosa’s competitive experience allowed her to understand the pressures that players were under, while understanding the importance of chemistry and culture. Balancing such circumstances was one that Rosa excelled at. Able to display a confidence in each and every player, believing in their ability and the value that they brought to the roster, she was able to cultivate a positive atmosphere conducive to championship results.

“Coaching the athletes with whom I previously skated was intimidating and rewarding. We won the NWHL title and the first CWHL title when I was coaching.

The most important job I had was to put the chemistry of wonderfully talented athletes on the ice, on the same page, pulling in the same direction and believing in themselves as a team. We won because we worked even harder than the rest.”

In the aftermath of her stint in the CWHL, Rosa remained a highly valued and decorated coach. Encouraging a new generation to establish their own legacies, she enjoyed a list of memorable highlights during the 2010s. Part of the Etobicoke Dolphins coaching staff that claimed the Women’s International Silver Stick 2013 Pee Wee AA Championship, the following year saw Rosa part of Canadian representation at the 2014 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp Roster. Among the players involved, the most notable was Jaycee Gebhard, a native of Plenty, Saskatchewan who set the Robert Morris University Colonials scoring record with 61 points in 2019-20.

Of all the remarkable coaching achievements during the decade, the most rewarding involved serving on Jessica Turi’s coaching staff with the dynastic Team Ontario Red at the 2015 Canadian Under-18 Nationals. Taking into account the star power that has skated for Ontario Red since the inception of the Under-18 Nationals, the 2015 edition was no exception, allowing Rosa a prestigious glimpse into a very bright future.

Team Ontario Red celebrates the 2015 Canadian Under-18 National Championship (Image obtained from: https://www.hockeycanada.ca/en-ca/national-championships/women/national-u18/2015)

Viewing the level of talent and competencies of the young players not only signified an amazing revelation, there was an equal feeling of validation. Very proud to see that such an apt group of competitors built on her legacy, demonstrating a highly exceptional skill set for such a young age, were propelling the game’s future into an even more compelling and confident direction.

“I was always in awe when I stood centre ice with the NWHL/CWHL… the speed, the skill, the hockey knowledge. I was especially in awe when I realized that Team Ontario Red was so much further ahead of what I expected at that age.

The athletes were so intelligent, they knew the game and challenged me to be my best as a coach – I loved it! I am consistently impressed with how quickly the women’s game is evolving and how wonderfully the women’s game is carving its own space rather than competing with the men’s game. There is such talent and so many amazing role models for our young female athletes.”


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