Representing a new generation of elite talent wearing the iconic Green and Gold of the University of Alberta Pandas, Madison Willan is poised to be one of university hockey’s finest in the new decade to come. The recipient of the 2020 U SPORTS Rookie of the Year Award, it signified the latest achievement in the athletic narrative for an already highly accomplished sporting icon.
ST. ALBERT SLASH
From the outset, Willan, a native of Edmonton, has already established herself as a key figure in modern Alberta hockey lore. Skating for the St. Albert Slash, amassing cumulative totals of 77 points in her last two seasons, including the honour of team captaincy in 2018-19, a season that saw Willan wow with 51 points.
I am very grateful to be able to say I am one of the five individuals who have won the Esso Cup 3 years in a row. I want to thank the coaches, trainers, and most importantly the amazing teammates I can call my life long friends for making this unbelievable feat come true #dynasty pic.twitter.com/RsgC2QTeYl
— Madison Willan (@MadisonWillan) April 29, 2019
Willan’s legacy with the Slash is best measured by the magical feat of three consecutive Esso Cup titles. Taking into account that no team had ever won the prestigious Cup back-to-back, the triptych of titles signifies a momentous place in Canadian hockey legend. Fittingly, Willan would hold an important place in the Slash’s brush with history.
Morden, Manitoba’s Access Event Centre served as the backdrop for the first title, as the Slash and Quebec’s Harfang du Triolet were scoreless in regulation. At the 14:41 mark of the first overtime, Willan and Ashley Nothof assisted on the game-winning goal, as Tyra Meropoulis found the back of the net against Michelle Thibault. On the opposite end of the frozen perimeter, Camryn Drever would log 28 saves in a highly intense shutout victory.
Claiming their second straight title, the historic feat held a Prairie feel. Taking place on April 28, 2018 in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia, the Slash faced off against the Saskatoon Stars. Willan scored the game-winning goal in the second period, with assists to Jayme Doyle and Meropoulis, who also scored in the first.
Completing the dynasty presented a unique scenario. With the host club, Sudbury Lady Wolves advancing to the Finals, a 1-0 lead after the first period, in which Taylor Scott scored on the power play for the hosts, planted seeds of doubt. Bouncing back in the second, Willan would record an assist on the Slash’s first goal of the game as Taylor Anker placed her name on the scoresheet. Recording an assist on a third period power play goal by Mackenzie Kordic, it placed the game out of reach, as the Slash emerged victorious by a 4-1 mark, becoming the first team in Hockey Canada club championships to win three in a row since the men’s Warroad Lakers captured three straight Allan Cup titles spanning from 1994 to 1996.
U OF A PANDAS DEBUT
Transitioning to the Canada West conference, Willan’s inaugural campaign as a Panda was nothing short of brilliant. Leading all Canada West rookies in scoring, capturing the conference’s Rookie of the Year Award and All-Rookie Team honors, amassing an impressive 25 points in 28 games played. Finishing third overall in the Canada West scoring race, when Willan would log at least one point in the regular season, the Pandas recorded a superlative 13-3 mark. Culminating with a postseason championship, the 14th in program history, Willan maintained her winning ways, signifying a proud achievement that only adds luster to the glories of the Esso Cup wins.
“We were able to win Nationals at the Midget AAA level three years in a row and to be able to carry that on to the next level of university hockey was a great feeling.”
Making her debut on October 4 on home ice versus the visiting University of British Columbia (UBC) Thunderbirds, opening weekend saw Willan record an amazing six points. Fittingly, she scored the Pandas first goal of the season, scoring on Tory Micklash at the 7:49 mark of the opening period, with Abby Benning and Abby Krzyzaniak, whose older sister, Halli, skates for the Canadian national team, assisted.
Coincidentally, Willan would be involved in the game’s final goal, assisting on a goal by Kennedy Ganser in a 7-1 final that saw six different Pandas score a goal. The following day resulted in Willan recording a point in each period, amassing four points in a 7-0 whitewash. Capitalizing on a power play opportunity for the game’s first goal, which also stood as the game-winning tally, Alex Poznikoff and Cayle Dillon earned the assists.
— UofA Pandas Hockey (@PandasHockey) October 5, 2019
Just six days later, Willan would record her third consecutive multi-point performance, recording a goal and an assist in a 3-2 double overtime win against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies. Starting her Pandas career with eight points in three games, it marked an incredible run to a highly promising career. The magnitude of such a sterling start was one where Willan’s humility and team first approach were highly evident, quick to credit the talent surrounding her,
“A lot of my success stems from the support of my teammates and coaching staff. When you feel comfortable in your environment and everyone is pushing to get better each and every day, it makes playing the game you love much easier and more fun.”
We are incredibly proud of our Pandas Hockey team and all they have accomplished this season.
Our hearts go out to all the student-athletes for their dedication to their craft.
Get home safe, and stay safe everyone!
— UAlberta Golden Bears & Pandas (@BearsandPandas) March 13, 2020
U SPORTS ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Ranked as the number 1 seed heading into Nationals, an event sadly shelved due to pandemic concerns, there was still a consolation for Willan and her fellow Pandas. Traditionally, the first night of Nationals involves its fabled Awards Gala. Providing a revered highlight in Willan’s fantastic freshman season, she captured the U SPORTS Rookie of the Year Award, part of a field of talented nominees, including Malory Dominico, who plays with her older sister Maria with the OUA’s Nipissing Lakers. Emmy Fecteau, a member of Canada’s U22/Development Team, who plays for head coach Julie Chu with the RSEQ’s Concordia Stingers, along with competitor Ellen Laurence, whose St. Mary’s Huskies finished first in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) conference.
“I am very humbled to receive that award as there were many others who had remarkable seasons as well. An individual accomplishment doesn’t come without a team effort and I am grateful for my teammates and coaches who strive to push the pace every day.”
Willan led all rookies with 25 points this season. She is also the first Panda to win this award since Danielle Bourgeois in 2000.
— UAlberta Golden Bears & Pandas (@BearsandPandas) March 11, 2020
With the Awards Gala serving as an exciting milieu, dynasty and destiny colliding, there was also the feeling of an emotional passing of the torch in Pandas lore. In addition to Willard’s Rookie of the Year Award win, fifth year forward Autumn MacDougall, who would become the first U SPORTS player selected in the history of the NWHL Draft, taken by the Buffalo Beauts, along with Cayle Dillon, were both named First-Team All-Canadians. Having played on MacDougall’s line, finding a mentor in the native of Cole Harbor, Nova Scotia, Willan demonstrated a keenness and sharp instincts, poised to build on her legacy, ready to take on the mantle in a brilliant lineage of elites that have skated for the Green and Gold.
Serendipitously, the Gala allowed Willan a treasured opportunity to pay homage to her Slash roots. Long-time teammate Tyra Meropoulis, competing across the country in the AUS conference for the St. Francis Xavier X-Women won the Brodrick Trophy, the fourth in program history to achieve the feat. Leading the nation with 26 goals and a solid 37 points, her season included pacing all players with seven game-winning goals. Undeniably, the opportunity to share in her Rookie of the Year Award win with a past and current teammate provided a highly rewarding, and emotional, context that enriches Willan’s hockey odyssey.
“It was very special to be able to share my award with them. Tyra and I played together on Slash for two seasons and were also on a line together. We had really good chemistry and I am super proud of her. Autumn and I were linemates with U of A and she has a knack of being in the right place at the right time and came up clutch for us many times. She has done very well and just recently became the first U SPORTS player to be drafted into the NWHL which is incredible.”
FROM THE RINK TO THE DIAMOND
Equally impressive is the fact that Willan is not only a phenomenal competitor on the frozen perimeter. Holding status as a two-sport star, Willan has already played for Canada’s national women’s baseball team.
.@baseballcanada’s bomb squad from this #WNTWorldQualifier tournament! Carrie Jespersen, Amanda Asay, @kelsey_lalor, @stacylaf22 and @MadisonWillan each launched homers to help Canada to its bronze-medal finish. 💣🇨🇦 pic.twitter.com/I2PVl4MBmw
— Baseball Canada Women's National Team (@BaseballCANWNT) August 25, 2019
Unbeknownst to the casual followers of the game, one of the most compelling facets of Canadian female baseball is the fact that so many of its national team players were once stars on the ice. Willan is the latest prodigy in a remarkable legacy of women in hockey who have excelled on the diamond. Among such a celebrated sorority includes Amanda Asay, who played Ivy League hockey with the Brown Bears, Ella Matteucci, a Frozen Four champion from Clarkson and CWHL Draft Pick, plus Autumn Mills, an OUA All-Star with the York Lions.
Additionally, a pair of iconic figures from the Laurier Golden Hawks halcyon days have been teammates on ice and on the diamond. Both multiple OUA champions, Kate Psota and Ashley Stephenson, a former competitor in the original NWHL and CWHL, plus a member of the Laurier Golden Hawks Hall of Fame also served on Sommer West’s coaching staff during the 2012-13 Toronto Furies campaign. Coincidentally, West also played for Canada in softball at the 2000 Summer Games, whose roster also featured Hayley Wickenheiser.
.@MadisonWillan hits a three-run SHOT to left to highlight a four-run bottom of the third for @baseballcanada! Her homer was Canada’s fourth of the #WNTWorldQualifier and gave #TeamC a 4-1 lead in the bronze-medal game. pic.twitter.com/NQ6JRhDVCU
— Baseball Canada Women's National Team (@BaseballCANWNT) August 25, 2019
To be in their company, including the fact that Willan actually called Stephenson, currently a coach with the National Team, and Matteucci, who spent the past season in the PWHPA, as teammates in Canada’s colours, provided tremendous perspective on the impact of this legacy. Finding a group of role models in the fact that all share common ground at the rink, their friendship has supplied Willan with the confidence to pursue her two-sport dreams.
“All of them have played high level hockey and I have been fortunate enough to play alongside Ashley and Ella with Team Canada. They have been instrumental role models and have guided me along what to expect and how to manage my time with playing two sports at the highest level.”
Having also pitched for the Alberta provincial team that competed at the Baseball Canada Women’s Invitational Championship in Montreal, Willan enjoyed one of the greatest hits in the history of the Canadian national women’s team. On August 9, 2017, Willan was part of a Canadian contingent that challenged the American National Women’s Team Development Program at the Washington Nationals Youth Academy in Washington, D.C. With four teams on-hand, including Canada Leaf and Canada Maple, along with USA Stars and USA Stripes, Willan played for Canada Leaf versus USA Stripes.
As Canada Maple defeated USA Stars by a convincing 13-7 score, highlighted by former Little League World Series competitor Emma March hitting a triple, Willan was a key factor in Canada Leaf’s win, enjoying a rare sweep over their American rivals. Connecting for a three-run home run, which broke a 2-2 deadlock, she was brought in to pinch-hit. Stephenson and Asay, who went 3-for-4 also participated. As a side note, Tess Forman, who pitches for the Carleton University Ravens men’s team, earned the first, while Noémie Lapointe pitched three innings of relief for the win.
Although other women in national team history have hit home runs, they have always been inside the park. Willan would connect for a home run that cleared the fence in left-center field. With the 330-foot shot, Willan became the first Canadian woman to have a home run exit the field of play. Adding to the sense of history and achievement was the fact that it took place in Willan’s first at-bat of said series, a key turning point in an emotional 5-4 triumph, simultaneously propelling the prodigious talent into sporting Canadiana.
“Hitting that home run was a great moment and one that I certainly won’t forget. It kickstarted our team to lay the pedal down and take over the rest of the game. “
Feature photo: U SPORTS