Part of an energetic group of new faces making their ISBHF debut as a member of Canada’s entry at the 2017 World Championships, Heather Berzins brings a combination of commitment and high energy, while extending the proud legacy of those who donned Canada’s colors prior. With a hockey resume that also includes competing for Team Alberta at the Canadian U18 nationals, her big game experience made her an ideal fit for this new generation of Team Canada stars.
The younger sister of Emily Berzins, a former member of the Team Alberta/Calgary Inferno franchise in CWHL play, their compelling magnetism transformed them into one of Alberta’s most accompmlished hockey sisters. Of note, the competition on the ball hockey court has provided them a hallowed opportunity to call each other teammates, most recently with Calgary United, destined to be a time that shall provide warm feelings of nostalgia in later years
“My sister has always inspired me through hockey. I have tried to follow in her footsteps for as long as I can remember. She was always one of my biggest role models. I would’ve never even started into ball hockey if she hadn’t introduced me to it. She always believed in me.”
Their collaborative efforts resulted in a CBHA national championship with Calgary United, a roster that was filled with prominent women’s ice hockey stars including former Ivy League stars such as Chelsea Karpenko and Reagan Fischer.
Another Calgary United teammate would take on a key role in Berzins’ international ball hockey odyssey. Having captured a Clarkson Cup title in 2016, Kurio joined an exclusive sorority of stars to have achieved the coveted Cup and a CBHA crown in the same year.
Getting the opportunity to play for Canada’s entry in Pardubice only added an historic footnote. The chance to take an exciting step forward and ascend to the status of an international competitor was a shared milestone between Kurio and Berzins.
“After player for United with Kurio it was awesome to get to play with her at worlds. For my first time travelling out of North America, I was so thankful to have a good friend to go through the experience with. And she is such a talented ball hockey player so it made me even more excited to play for my country.”
Having recently graduated from the University of Calgary, Berzins spent five fantastic seasons with the Dinos varsity women’s ice hockey program. In addition to cultivating the thrill of elite competition a perpetual competitor for the Golden Path Trophy, Berzins was surrounded by a collection of well-traveled coaches and teammates that fostered the dream of international competition.
Competing for head coach Danielle Goyette, a two-time Winter Games gold medalist, Berzins’ final season in Dinos colors brought with it a pair of unique coincidences. Of note, Goyette’s coaching staff consisted of former NHL blueliner Tim Bothwell, who served as the head coach of Team Alberta in the 2012-13 CWHL season, which featured older sister Emily on the roster.
In addition, Mandi Duhamel, a former captain with the Ottawa Gee-Gees program, has also assembled a solid coaching career. Having gained a gold medal as an assistant coach on Canada’s team at the 2011 FISU Winter Universiade, she joined Goyette’s coaching staff in 2016-17.
Of note, Duhamel also served as bench boss for the gold medal winning Canadian contingent at the 2016 FIRS Women’s Worlds. Adding international ball hockey to her hockey legacy, Duhamel actually called Berzins a teammate in Pardubice, gaining the privilege of serving as team captain.
Statistically, Berzins, an alum of the Warner Hockey School, was a solid member of the Dinos in her senior season, showing remarkable durability by appearing in 25 games. Part of a senior class that included Kelsie Lang, captain Megan Grenon and Madison Turk, Berzins was bestowed the honor of serving as an alternate captain.
Amassing a respectable 11 points, the final assist in Berzins’ career with the Dinos took place on February 2, 2017 in a 3-1 road loss against Mount Royal, the third game in the Crowchild Classic. Along with Kate Lumley, she logged the assist on a goal scored by Cheyann Newman. Home ice at Father David Bauer Arena would set the stage for her final goal as a Dino, breaking a 2-2 deadlock in the second period as Tori Stebnitsky gained the assist. Said goal would prove to be essential in a hardfought 4-3 win against the Regina Cougars on February 10.
There was also the positive influence of playing alongside Hayley Wickenheiser, one of the game’s luminaries and the greatest Canadian player of her generation. Surrounded by another pair of competitors with IIHF experience, Iya Gavrilova and Sasha Vafina (who would lead Russia to the gold medal at the 2017 FISU Winter Universiade), added a sense of world-class importance to the roster.
Although the season ended with a heartbreaking 8 wins, the enthusiasm and strong leadership of Berzins served as one of the season’s hallmarks, continuously providing the red and gold with a chance to remain competitive in every game. Undoubtedly, such a presence helped to set a positive example for the roster’s younger players, akin to the same inspiration that Berzins found when she called Wickenheiser and Gavrilova teammates,
“The thing I will miss the most about playing with the Calgary Dinos is honestly just being able to competitively play the game I love. To be able to get an education while also representing my university at the collegiate level is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. Playing with Iya Gavrilova was so inspiring. She is such a talented hockey player, but so humble. Iya is such a great teammate and great friend.”
As Berzins gained the opportunity to emulate Gavrilova’s successes by adding her own international hockey appearance, there was another unique connection. In addition to calling Duhamel, a former captain with the Ottawa Gee-Gees, as teammates on Canada’s entry, they were not the only stars from Canadian Interuniversity Sport (now known as USPORTS) on the roster.
Another example of the impressive quality of talent that constitutes Canadian university hockey is the fact that so many stars are making their mark in the professional and international ranks. Of note, Elysia Desmier, Giuliana Palotta and Devon Skeats were all alums from the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks. In addition, fellow Albertans Kristi Sugiyama, an alum from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology and Canada’s number one goalie, plus Tara Swanson were also on the roster.
“It’s great to see other women from the CIS finding success in ball hockey. More and more women are staying in Canada to play in the USPORT league, and it’s amazing to see the league grow. And to be able to play with fellow CIS graduates makes me very proud.”
Appearing in all of Canada’s seven games, the first time that Berzins put on the Canadian jersey really helped set the tone, affirming the dream of international competition. A feeling that she will never forget, as Canada opened the tournament against Slovakia, the sense of achievement is one that still runs strong within the jubilant Berzins.
“The first time I put on that jersey was surreal. You always dream of representing your country but when the time actually comes, it’s unbelievable. The first shift is almost a blur. You just have to get through the first shift for it to actually completely sink in, and then the nervous cut out and adrenaline sets in. It was the most amazing experience. And to stand on that blue line, arm in arm with my teammates, and belt out our national anthem… well that was the experience of a lifetime.”
In spite of not being on the scoresheet in that first game, it would not take Berzins long to make an impact. With Canada’s second game, an 11-0 whitewash of Great Britain, she would gain the assist on the team’s second goal of the game, scored by Palotta, adding a sense of importance to the CIS alums that suited up for Canada in this event.
Finishing the tournament with the bronze medal, avenging their opening game loss to Slovakia with a 5-0 trouncing, the victorious outcome brought the ideal ending to Berzins’ inaugural international ball hockey journey. Simultaneously providing a lustrous finish to a memorable 2016-17 that saw her proud Dinos career reach its apex, Berzins has a lot to be proud of. The chance to represent Canada internationally during its 150th anniversary represents a pillar of achievement that shall be cherished far long after she hangs up her skates, while adding to an admirable legacy as both an ice hockey and ball hockey star in Calgary.
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Daniel Soucek (ISBHF), Calgary Dinos athletics