Among the Heritage Players for Team Italia that competed at the 2017 ISBHF World Championships in Pardubice, Czech Republic, a terrific trio also represented Canada’s capital region. Such a significant group included Alicia Blomberg, who gained a spot on the 2017 Tournament All-Star Team, along with Annalisa Mazzerello, who scored Team Italia’s first-ever goal for the program back in 2011, when they made their ISBHF debut.
Also part of this incredible collection of talent was Samantha DeLenardo, a former University of Ottawa Gee-Gees women’s ice hockey player and a Hockey Humanitarian whose remarkable efforts include the admirable Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative.
Bringing her background in Gee-Gees hockey, DeLenardo was definitely a significant asset for Team Italia. Taking into account that Blomberg was also a former teammate on the Gee-Gees, the chance to be reunited represented a proud tournament highlight, while helping provide rapport and synergy on the roster. In discussing the chance to be part of Team Italia, a marvelous maturity rises to the surface, indicating a stoic character and admirable leadership qualities,
“My background in university hockey prepared me to play under pressure in big games, to play in and against a variety of systems, and also manage team dynamics. I am happy to step into whatever role is required of me for the team to succeed.
I just tried to do my best on and off the floor, and represent the team with integrity. I was happy to hear Blomberg had signed on. We played together for five years, so we speak the same language, we have the same work ethic, and we know what it takes. I trust her to do her job and that is what you want in a teammate.”
Getting the chance to don the Italian colors brought with it a strong sense of pride. Honoring her Italian lineage while holding stick in hand, her competitive background was emblematic of the team’s valiant efforts in Pardubice. Bringing a solid work ethic to the ball hockey court for every tournament match, there was one particular match that brought with it a heightened sense of emotion. With so many of Team Italia’s Heritage Players raised in Canada, gaining the opportunity to compete against the Canadian contingent in round robin play represented a significant highlight.
Adding to the sense of exhilaration on this day was the fact that there was a significant local impact for DeLenardo, as she found several familiar faces on the opposing end of the court. Of note, Canada consisted of four players who have also competed in the Ottawa Vanier Women’s Ball Hockey League (OVWBHL).
Mandi Duhamel, who served as Canada’s captain at Pardubice was a teammate of DeLenardo on the Gee-Gees. A pair of Mazzarello’s teammates from the Vanier Mooseheads club team, goaltender Nathalie Girouard and Elysia Desmier donned Canada’s jersey. Making her debut for Canada was Jamie Lee Rattray, who captured CBHA National Championships in 2014 and 2015.
Undoubtedly, all seven of these outstanding Ottawans competing in this game represented more than just the OVWBHL’s proud legacy; they embodied the essence of what makes the game great. In the aftermath of the game, DeLenardo would join the other six at center court for a photograph, commemorating an exceptional chapter in Ottawa sports history.
“Playing against Team Canada was a lot of fun. They have a solid team, so you know the hockey is going to be excellent. I have played with and against a number of the women in both ice and ball hockey, so it was great to see friends from home and chirp each other a bit out there.
In a way, it was like I was back on the floor with my Ottawa buddies – it was bittersweet. I was especially proud of the way our team rallied and gave the Canadians a good battle. We stuck to our systems and everyone did their job.”
Although Italia entered the tournament with the optimism of a podium finish, veteran players like DeLenardo helped to set an encouraging tone, ensuring that Italia’s presence at the event ended on a positive note. In the first of a three game series against Great Britain to determine fifth place, she scored her first goal of the ISBHF Worlds.
Launching the ball past Megan Quigley, it was part of an explosive third period that saw a pair of goals scored within 14 seconds by Team Italia, putting the game out of reach. Fittingly, it was Blomberg who gained the assist on said goal, rekindling memories of their glorious times as Gee-Gees teammates, simultaneously adding new luster to this latest chapter in their hockey careers.
Emerging victorious in a 3-0 final, it would be the first of back-to-back shutout wins for Italia goaltender Nicole Paniccia, a Penn State alum, experiencing her finest hour. Complemented by DeLenardo’s assiduous resolve, it was part of a solid finish to the tournament, engaging a reassuring and heartening mood as Italia looks towards the next ISBHF Worlds. Reflecting on her goal with an element of humor, DeLenardo recounts how consulting with assistant coach Diana Brown, who was Canada’s head coach at the 2015 Worlds, remedied a scoring slump.
“It was exciting to finally find the back of the net against Great Britain. I had some good chances all tournament, but could not seem to make it click; sometimes that’s just the way it goes.
I finally asked Coach Di to banish the evil spirits from my stick between periods. I scored a couple minutes later! Getting the win meant a lot for the girls, too. The scores on the game sheets were not reflective of our play by any means, but at the end of the day, you want that ‘w’. It felt good to redeem ourselves against GB and hear the Italian anthem.”
While the ISBHF Worlds expanded DeLenardo’s local sporting legacy, enriching her presence as one of Ottawa’s sporting ambassadors, there was also another unique facet. It provided an opportunity for fans gaining an introduction to DeLenardo to appreciate her admirable efforts as a sporting humanitarian.
Along with former Gee-Gees basketball player Krista Van Slingerland, this determined duo sought to bring an empathic approach towards coping with the high demands of competition. Understanding the pressures of an athlete’s life, and the perception that any admission of struggle reflects weakness, they aimed to challenge such stigmas, striving to stimulate positive discussion.
Having formed the Student-Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) in 2014, the charity’s mission is to promote the mental health and well-being of post-secondary student-athletes. DeLenardo is currently joined by Cassie Sparks, a former Queen’s Golden Gaels and Gee-Gees hockey player, and Board members Lori Lopez, the Executive Director of CARHA Hockey, and Dr. Shaunna Taylor. There is a strong leadership presence among this group, dedicated to providing the necessary resources while raising awareness of mental health issues among athletes.
Numerous teams at the university level have benefitted from SAMHI’s positive presence, bringing a richer meaning to the essence of teamwork. Highlighted by the Campus Teams program, where student-athletes have carried out awareness and fundraising activities on campuses, supported access to resources, plus organizing Mental Health Matchups, there is a real sense of ownership among student-athletes to bring about change.
Complemented by the fact that SAMHI was also a topic of discussion at the U SPORTS 2017 Annual General Meeting, the potential for a strong working relationship which could benefit all members of the athletic community is one worth pursuing.
Considering how DeLenardo has balanced career (where she is employed at Canada’s largest mental health and addiction teaching hospital), athletic obligations and her focus on SAMHI, it is testament to her character. Looking to bring betterment for a new generation of athletes, providing them with the suitable learning tools, helping them understand that such struggles are not solitary, while shaping confidence, it is one of her hallmarks as a role model.
“I have seen firsthand how devastating a mental illness can be. In a lot of settings but especially in sport, we learn to be tough and ‘suck it up’; however, when it comes to mental health and illness, we know that doesn’t work.
I am proud to have created something meaningful that is helping people. I have been working on SAMHI almost every day since 2013 while working full-time. I have to manage my time very carefully and work efficiently.
Even then, it can get overwhelming – any entrepreneurs out there will agree! But then I get an email from someone or I hear a story about how SAMHI has helped them, and I know: it’s worth it.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Photo credits: Daniel Soucek
To learn more about SAMHI, please visit: http://www.samhi.ca/