Having established herself as a hockey hero on both sides of the border, Kayla Gardner’s formative years were spent starring in the American Midwest. Raised in Eagle River, Ontario, Gardner led Minnesota’s Warroad High School to four straight state tournaments, Gardner would remain in the Midwest, suiting up with the WCHA’s University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks, where she appeared in 146 games over four stellar seasons. As a side note, Shelby Amsley-Benzie and Layla Marvin, teammates at Warroad would also join Gardner at North Dakota.
With the Calgary Inferno representing the latest chapter in Gardner’s bright career, selected 33rd overall in the 2017 CWHL Draft, she is part of one of the best rookie classes in the franchise’s history. Throughout this exciting transition, there have been some mixed emotions, attributed to shocking offseason news. The revelation that the Fighting Hawks played their final season of women’s ice hockey sent shockwaves throughout the women’s hockey community.
Sadly, North Dakota joins the Niagara Purple Eagles and the Wayne State Warriors among universities in this decade that have ceased Division I women’s ice hockey. Although Gardner would be part of Fighting Hawks history, having played in what proved to be their final game and season, there is understandably a tinge of sadness.
Having called national team member Halli Krzyzaniak and former U18 alum Meghan Dufalt as teammates in North Dakota, they were part of significant Canadian content on the Fighting Sioux that also included Breanna Berndsen, Annie Chipman, Kristen Campbell and Becca Kohler. Despite the unfortunate and unforeseen ending, Gardner, a multiple WCHA All-Academic and WCHA Scholar Athlete can be proud to have been a key contributor to the program’s legacy.
“I was shocked and in complete disbelief when I found out that the UND Women’s Hockey program was cut. I’m honored to have been able to put on the North Dakota jersey for four years but I feel bad for younger girls who no longer have this opportunity. The Ralph Engelstad arena is one of the best rinks I have ever played in and I will always cherish my time there.”
Coincidentally, the newest chapter of Gardner’s hockey odyssey would also find its roots in the United States. Debuting with the Inferno on the road against the Boston Blades, the October 21 affair would be one of the league’s most notable games, firmly entrenched in franchise lore. With a game that saw more than 10 players make their professional debuts, it was a shared milestone that provided Gardner with memories to be treasured for the remainder of her playing career.
“It was exciting playing in my first CWHL game, I thought that my team did really good and worked well together. With so many rookies this season I think it definitely helped make the transition easier, as we were all going through this new experience together and we could relate to one another. I think that the returning players also really helped make the transition easier, as they were extremely welcoming and willing to help in any way.”
Although Gardner did not score her first goal in that game, she did record her first CWHL point. After a scoreless first period, a pair of Inferno rookies, including Gardner would experience career firsts. Sophie Shirley, a former member of Canada’s national U18 team would score the club’s first goal of the season. Less than eight minutes following said goal, Gardner would be credited with the assist on a goal scored by Katelyn Gosling, which would prove to be the game-winning tally in a 3-1 final.
Scoring her first CWHL goal 15 days later, it would prove to be well worth the wait for Gardner. Scoring with just 12 seconds remaining in the third period in a match against the new-look Markham Thunder, it would also stand as the last goal of the game. Such a pinnacle was part of one of the greatest moments in both franchise and league history.
Of note, Gardner, who finished the game with a solid +3 rating, would be one of three members of the Inferno to score her first CWHL goal in the contest. In addition to Gardner, she would be joined in this historic trio by fellow rookie Kelly Murray and Jacqui Pierri. As a side note, it was Murray who would gain the assist on Gardner’s goal, logging the first multi-point performance in her CWHL career.
“It felt awesome to score my first goal with the Inferno. Two other teammates also scored their first goals, which made it pretty memorable.”
Before the holiday break, there would be another cherished moment for Gardner. With the Inferno playing at the iconic Stampede Corral on December 16, Gardner enjoyed her first multi-goal game. Hosting the Toronto Furies, Gardner scored the first goal of said game, unassisted, against backstop Sonja van der Bliek. Also scoring the first goal of the second period, there was a unique sense of serendipity. Gaining the assist was Shirley, as the Inferno prevailed in an exciting 4-3 overtime finale that saw Iya Gavrilova provide the heroics in the extra frame. Deservedly, Gavrilova and Gardner were both recognized among the game’s Three Stars.
Jubilant over such an exciting outcome, it was also the second of a three-game scoring streak for Gardner. Scoring another goal on December 17 against the Furies, she would end the first half of her inaugural season with the Inferno in grand fashion. Undoubtedly, such a strong showing versus the blue and white is also a reflection of Gardner’s team-first approach, crediting the assiduous efforts of those who skate on the same line with her.
“I was extremely proud of such a great performance but even more proud of how well my team did. My line mates and I worked really well together and we were able to move the puck around and capitalize on our chances.”
Having seen actions in four games this January, including the return of Emerance Maschmeyer to Calgary, along with a pair of emotional fund raisers, one for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, while the other was in recognition of Do It for Daron, committed to mental health awareness, Gardner continues to admirably grow into the role of professional athlete, dedicated to giving her team an opportunity to win.
In spite of the fact that Gardner has been kept off the scoresheet so far in 2018, her durability and dependability have proven to be just as valuable. Cultivating confidence while dedicated to the team’s success, the progression in her rookie season has established her as key building block, proud to don the Inferno’s red jersey.
“As the season has progressed, I feel that I have become more confident and I have improved by winning one on one battles and capitalizing on my chances. I think the best part of my game is my hockey sense and knowing where to be and where my teammates are going to be.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Dave Holland