With the growing legacy of women’s ice hockey in the province of Saskatchewan, players like Toni Ross are helping contribute to an exciting era. Having established herself as one of the most talented players to stand between the pipes for the Regina Cougars, her final season would prove to be the most treasured.
Starting the 2015-16 campaign with four consecutive wins, which also included a season opening sweep of the nationally ranked Calgary Dinos, Ross would go on to win 10 of her first 15 games. Posting a 5-1-0 mark in overtime, Ross was at her finest, highlighted by a 41 save performance against the University of British Columbia. Her brilliant performances in overtime were a key factor in the Cougars enjoying a third place finish in the regular season standings.
Statistically, Ross would assemble a masterful season, ranking first overall among Canada West backstops in games played (25), wins (17) and win percentage (.708). She would also rank in the top four among five other major statistical categories in Canada West play, including goals against average, minuets played and saves, respectively.
Of all the games this season, Ross’ most memorable took place on January 23, 2016 against the Alberta Pandas program, immortalizing her in Cougars lore. A 3-1 final provided Ross with a program record 32 wins, establishing herself as more than just the winningest goaltender, but the gold standard by which future backstops shall be measured.
Bouncing back from a hard fought 2-1 loss to Alberta just the day before, Ross recorded 22 saves in another contest that would be determined by just one goal. Taking place on home ice, the lead would change hands three times before Kylie Gavelin’s third period goal would stand as the historic game winner. Opposing goaltender Lindsey Post, who would lead Canada West with a 1.34 goals against, would make 20 saves in the contest, a memorable milestone for Ross.
Such an achievement would be the beginning of many more to follow for the hardworking Ross. By season’s end, she would break the single season wins record set by Laura Paradis in 2000-01. Graduating with 36 wins, Ross would propel the Cougars to the Canada West semifinals against UBC, highlighted by a 1-0 shutout of Calgary in the deciding game of the quarterfinals. For her efforts, she was honored as a Canada West First Team All Star, the first in her storied career. Prior to this honor, Ross earned CIS Academic All-Canadian Honors in 2013 and 2014.
Joining Ross as Canada West All-Stars including Gavelin (First Team), along with Second Team nods Alexis Larson and Jaycee Magwood, representing a record number of All-Stars for one season. Complementing such an unprecedented achievement was the thrill of being named the Regina Cougars Female Athlete of the Year. Taking into account that last season she shared goaltending duties with Jennifer Schmidt, her game grew by a quantum leap, displaying a remarkable confidence that set the tone for this season for the Cougars.
“Both of these awards came as such a surprise to me, I never dreamed or really thought I would ever receive them. Canada West is such a competitive league full of great players, and the University of Regina has so many skilled athletes that winning these awards were very surreal. I am very proud to first off have been a Cougar, it is a part of me that I will keep forever, and then to have made a mark in the athletics program is definitely a bonus, and very special to me.”
Following such a sensational series of accomplishments, another prize would place Ross in rarified air. Rewarded with the prestigious Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Award, named in honor of the daughter of Lord Stanley (of which the Stanley Cup is named after), it was the footnote to a dream season that has made Ross one of the most decorated players in Cougars history.
Recognizing an active Canadian player at any age whose efforts demonstrate both dedication and leadership in women’s hockey, the first recipient of the Award was Linda Irving of Prince Edward Island in 2000. Since then, the company of winners has included the likes of Andria Hunter, four-time Winter Games gold medalist Caroline Ouellette and CWHL co-founder Lisa Marie Breton-Lebreux.
Adding to the jubilation was the fact that Ross received the award in her home province of Saskatchewan. With the 2016 edition of the Esso Cup being hosted in Weyburn, where the award was presented, it brought Ross’ career full circle. Prior to her glories with the Cougars, Ross starred for the Weyburn Gold Wings, sharing the Brittony Chartier Award in 2010-11 with Katie Sigurdson, recognizing the best goaltender in the Saskatchewan Female Midget AAA League. One of two clubs from the province (along with the Saskatoon Stars) participating in the Esso Cup, Maeve McGauley would finish as Weyburn’s leading scorer.
“It is such an honor to receive the Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Award, it is such a special award because it recognizes more than just physical efforts but also the amount of time and effort a person puts back into both the game and their community.
In addition, it is a very special feeling to have your name next to some of the greatest female hockey players in Canada so that was very special for me. It made the moment even a little sweeter being presented the award in Weyburn as I am a proud Weyburn Goldwing Alumni, and it was amazing to see just how far that program has come since I graduated in 2011.”
As Ross emphasized, the award recognizes the time and effort put back into the game. Ross’ efforts in paying it forward and providing the next generation of hockey hopefuls with a positive learning experience are nothing short of exceptional. Such a strong commitment to the game involves admirable volunteer work.
Said work includes the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life Program, Big Sisters Regina, along with the Cougar Cubs program, involving players aged 3-to-5, just beginning their hockey odyssey, along with assisting Cougars head coach (and Dartmouth women’s hockey alum) Sarah Hodges with the program’s prospect camp.
Through it all, Ross embodies the values that make the Award one of the most prestigious in all of Canadian women’s sports. As a side note, Hodges captured the Canada West Coach of the Year Award while serving as the first recipient of the Cougars’ inaugural Coach of the Year award. She shall also be serving as the team leader for Team Canada’s development camp in August, part of preparations for the 2017 Winter Universiade.
“My giving back is motivated by the amount of opportunities I had as I grew up, and wanting to provide some of the same and then even better opportunities for anyone pursuing their hockey dreams. I can’t say enough how much hockey has done for me, and I just hope that others can have the same experiences I did.
The thing I enjoy the most is seeing the children that I have worked with succeed, and have a skill or technique we have been working on click. Of course the funny things that kids say are up there as well.”
While Ross has served as a role model for these youngsters, there was another member of the Cougars that provided her with a valuable role model to look up to. Among them is Julie Foster, who has proudly been involved with the Cougars since 2004. Like Ross, she holds a special place in Saskatchewan hockey lore, having also won the Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Award.
Bestowed with the honor in 2001, Foster was an active member of the Cougars roster, registering 31 points on the strength of 21 assists during an eventful 2000-01 campaign that saw the Cougars claim the Canada West title. A Canada West Second-Team All-Star selection in both 2002 and 2003, Foster also appeared in three CIS national tournaments. With Foster remaining an integral component of Cougars hockey, it was a strong point of pride for Ross to know that her former coach is among the remarkable women that have claimed this prestigious prize,
“Julie is such a great person, and I am so glad that I was able to get to know her during my time with the Cougars. She is a great hockey player, and continues to give back to the game as she puts in countless hours to help new Cougar athletes with their careers. Sharing this honor with her definitely inspires and motivates me to continue to give back to the game in bigger and better ways moving forward.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
Image supplied by Toni Ross