As the only competitor in the Canada West conference to win a major U Sports Award in 2017, it is one that recognizes Mount Royal’s Sarah Weninger for a remarkable body of work that has made a positive impact in all facets of her hockey career. Bestowed the honor of the Marion Hillard Award, which recognizes a Student-Athlete for excellence on the ice, in the classroom, and the community, it stands as a fitting tribute.
Raised in Lethbridge, Alberta, Weninger, a criminal justice major is the second straight competitor from the Canada West conference has won the prominent prize. Of note, she follows in the footsteps of Janelle Froehler, a member of the Alberta Pandas who was recognized for her work with read-in week at an elementary school and the Edmonton Girls Hockey Association.
In reflecting on the thrill of this hallmark in her career, her admirable leadership qualities shine through, recognizing that even individual accomplishments cannot be truly attained without a strong show of teamwork. She also pays tribute to the admirable efforts of the other nominees, one representing each of the other major conferences in U Sports hockey: Kristi Riseley of Toronto (OUA), blueliner Beatrice Harrietha of Saint Mary’s (AUS), and Vickie Lemire, the captain of Ottawa (RSEQ).
“It was an honour to say the least. I have a ton of people that have helped me along the way. I would not have even been able to be considered for the award if it was not for them. I think for me the most incredible part of the award is that coaches around our league and around the country believed that I was capable of this award, especially going up against some truly amazing young women who were just as deserving of it. It actually has me at a loss for words, because it is truthfully just such an honour to have won this award.”
Having competed for Mount Royal in their inaugural season in Canada West (2012-13), pioneer, Heninger quickly established herself as a key performer on offense. Having led all Mount Royal Cougars rookies in goals scored that season, it was the start of an upward progression. By her third season (2014-15), she reached career highs in points, tied for third among all Mount Royal skaters.
In the aftermath of the 2015-16 campaign, Weninger had truly blossomed into a prime time player, with three game-winning goals. It was a season where the offensive floodgates burst open, logging a career-best 11 goals, 102 shots on goal, subsequently gaining the team’s scoring title.
Throughout this remarkable time, Weninger also balanced her responsibilities of sport and academics by graciously donating her time for a handful of volunteer programs. One of the most cherished for Weninger involves Hockey Alberta’s Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS) program. Built on the values of teaching life skills and inspiring marginalized youth through the values and team effort in hockey, it is a cause definitely close to Weninger’s heart.
Part of Weninger’s passion for this admirable cause has extended to other players from the Cougars. Several teammates have also participated, giving their time while working with a group of children on a weekly basis, hoping to inspire them and build self-esteem.
“I love the people involved with HEROS. The volunteers are incredible; the amount of time they put in to helping these kids is truly amazing. They bring humour and fun, but also challenge the kids and help them whenever they need it. I truly believe that the volunteers would do anything for any of the kids, that is the type of program this is. The volunteers are so much fun and make coming every week so enjoyable. The kids absolutely love each and every one of them and the volunteers truly put their heart and soul into the kids.
The kids are inspiring. I go home after every session talking to my friends and teammates about something that a kid did that I thought was incredible. They are resilient to the challenges brought their way and come every week with smiles on their faces regardless of what happens in their day. They make me laugh and smile every week and I truly believe in each and every one of them.”
Among the efforts made to show these children how important they are, and that they have limitless potential, involved a fund-raising evening. Considering that $3,000 was raised, it was exemplary of the type of commitment that Heninger has to bring improvement and confidence to their lives.
“I try my best to inspire the kids by just encouraging and supporting them in any way (that) I can. Showing them that they can do so much more than they ever thought is something all of us volunteers try to inspire them with. While it is a program about hockey, it’s about so much more than that for these kids.
We try to inspire them by teaching them the life skills involved with being part of a team. Encouraging them to be leaders, treat people with respect and getting back up when they’ve fallen. Those seem so simple to some of us, but these kids learning those skills impact them immaculately. I try my best to challenge them to be better than they were yesterday and to treat others with kindness, as it goes a long way in life.”
In addition to her involvement with HEROS, Weninger is also part of another unique program with Hockey Alberta. With plans to give back to the game following her playing career, a significant step forward involved being on-hand at Hockey Alberta’s Future Leaders Camp.
Aimed at giving aspiring coaches guidance and preparation to play an active role in numerous programs offered by Hockey Alberta, along with opportunities to make significant contributions to their communities, it is part of an exciting initiative that aims to create the next generation of leaders. Considering that Weninger has aspirations to continue her hockey dream by remaining involved as a coach, it is a vocation that would truly be a labor of love.
“I would love to get involved in coaching after I am done. I may wait a year or two to see where my future career takes me, but coaching would be something I would want to do. I had a lot of great coaches throughout my hockey career and I would love to be able to give back to kids by coaching.”
This season, Weninger would grace the Cougars jersey in what was her swan song. Leaving an unforgettable impact, she was an integral component once again for the Cougars offense. Capturing the team’s scoring title with 13 points, on the strength of nine goals, with a +6 plus/minus rating, her work in the classroom is equally impressive. From the outset, her dedication is also reflected in the classroom, achieving a solid GPA of 3.66, cumulative over her last two academic semesters.
Appearing in 25 games this season, she established herself as a nationally prominent competitor, ranking in the top 20 for shots on goal, top 35 for power play goals, along with top 40 for goals scored. Her first goal of the season came in a hardfought 3-2 loss to Calgary on October 20.
Between October 28 and November 19, Weninger registered three multi-point performances. Her best performance was a two-goal output against Saskatchewan on November 4, another close loss by a 3-2 mark.
A goal scored against the Lethbridge Pronghorns on a January 14 contest not only stood as the final goal in proud Cougars career, it was a legendary game in Cougars annals. Bringing her career full circle as Lethbridge was the site of her sporting roots, she scored the first goal of the game at the 2:39 mark of the first period, unassisted against on Jessica Lohues. In addition, Reanna Arnold would log the game-winning tally in double overtime, a fitting way to commemorate Weninger’s goal.
Adding to such a great sense of momentum was the fact that the Cougars would take to the ice at the Saddledome, home of the NHL’s Calgary Flames for the fifth annual Crowchild Game. Taking on the Calgary Dinos on February 2, Emma Pincott made 14 saves in a 3-1 win.
By season’s end, not only did the Cougars beat UBC to close out their season, a 2-0 shutout win against Canada’s number 1 ranked team, qualifying for their first-ever Canada West postseason berth. Despite suffering the sweep from the Manitoba Bisons, the progress made this season was an ideal way to commemorate Weninger’s outstanding five-year career with the program.
That sense of commemoration also took on a grander meaning for Weninger during senior night celebrations. Bringing with it mixed emotions, the reflections are indicative of what made Weninger a model teammate and a valued friend, defining her lasting legacy with the Cougars.
“It will definitely be bittersweet. I am excited to join the real world and start my career, but sad about leaving hockey and university. I will miss being part of the team and seeing 24 of my best friends on a daily basis.
My teammates have been the best supports and friends I could have asked for. I will miss the laughs in the dressing room and just miss being around them. They are an incredible group of girls, who I would truly do anything for.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Mount Royal Cougars athletics