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Building a dynasty: The rise of Martlet hockey

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The first women’s hockey game at McGill University was played in 1894, back when females possessed an unexpected advantage over their male counterparts: The modest ankle-length skirts that they had to wear. These allowed the ladies to pursue a clever defensive strategy. By crouching in front of their goaltender when the opposing team had possession of the puck, their long skirts spread out and foiled any shot attempts on the net. Needless to say, most of these early games were rather low-scoring affairs and attendance was low, especially given the fact that the referee was the only man allowed to watch the women play.

Luckily for all McGill hockey fans, the game has progressed dramatically since those days, and has blossomed over the last decade in particular. The McGill Martlets have been undeniably dominant since the 2006-2007 season, becoming one of the most feared teams in the country. In the last nine seasons, the Martlets have made an astounding seven appearances in the National Championship game, winning four titles. The Martlets have not lost more than four regular season games in any given year in that same period, and enjoyed an 86-game unbeaten streak lasting from December 2007 until March 2010, which ended in a heartbreaking championship game loss to the University of Alberta Pandas at the 2010 CIS Nationals. A win then would have given the Martlets their third consecutive national title. 

The team’s recent dominance is not a return to previous heights, or anything McGill is used to at all. The team had always been relatively talented, but it had only one appearance in the National Championship game before 2007. In prior decades, women’s hockey was largely dominated by perennial powerhouses, including the Alberta Pandas and the University of Toronto Lady Blues. After winning the Quebec University Athletic Association Championship in 1985, McGill managed to qualify for the playoffs only once until 1999, when Peter Smith was appointed head coach. Smith joined McGill Athletics in 1979 after earning his degree in physical education from the university. After 20 years spent in various roles in the Department of Athletics, Smith took over as part-time coach in addition to his existing duties as facilities manager, and immediately began to improve the team. 

In the early 2000s, the Martlets posted multiple seaons that were above average, but far from dominant, still struggling to compete outside of the RSEQ against stronger teams from western Canadian universities. As the decade progressed, Smith saw a steady increase in the calibre of talent joining the team, culminating in a youthful and star-studded 2007 roster, which included established Canadian Olympic goaltender Charline Labonté, 2007 McGill female Athlete-of the-Year, team MVP Vanessa Davidson, and future Olympian Catherine Ward. 

“I was looking for a new challenge after the Olympics and [McGill] was an amazing experience for me,” said Labonté.

The individual achievements were numerous: Labonté posted a spectacular .957 save percentage on the season; Ward, who had been recruited by Harvard, Princeton, and Yale while captain at Dawson College in Montreal before settling on McGill, won CIS Rookie-of-the-Year; and Davidson won the Quebec scoring title while adding several single-season McGill offensive records to her achievements. Ward attributed her choice of university to the opportunity to be a true student-athlete at McGill.

“It was a great fit for me, because McGill offers me the best of both in terms of hockey and academics,” said Ward, who studied management at McGill. 

The Martlets entered the CIS playoffs as the number one seed in 2007 after losing only one game in regular season play that year. McGill made it all the way to the Championship game before suffering a harrowing 4-0 loss against the rival University of Alberta Pandas. The team gained valuable playoff experience and the will to come back in the 2007-2008 season and do what no McGill womens’ varsity team in history had ever done before—win a CIS Championship. 

The biggest boost to the Martlet hockey program came that March. David and Sheryl Kerr, McGill alumni and former hockey players at McGill, donated $1 million specifically to women’s hockey at McGill. David Kerr (B.Sc. ‘65) skated for the Redmen from 1961 to 1965 and captained the team in his last year at McGill. While still a player on the men’s squad, Kerr was helping to coach the women’s team in his third and fourth years and met his future wife Sheryl (B.Com.’67) when she tried out for the Martlets in 1963.

Long after graduation in 1986, David joined multinational mining and natural resource company Noranda Inc. as vice-president of strategic planning in development, rising to the role of president of the company just a year later. David would eventually serve as Noranda’s chair and CEO before stepping down in 2002. 

The Kerrs wanted to give back to the team after all that it had given them during their time at McGill and in the years since. 

“Our time at McGill was very special,” Sheryl said. “I was born in Montreal but grew up in Belleville [Ontario] so I didn’t know anybody when I got to McGill. Initially, playing hockey for the university was my whole life. The camaraderie in athletics was wonderful for me and that’s where I first met my husband-to-be.”

David also regarded his time as a Redmen as a formative experience of his college years.

“Hockey was all of the things you hope to enjoy in an intercollegiate sport—the travel to other universities and the camaraderie on the team […] it was just a fun experience,” David added. “You always need something at university to keep you busy outside of academics. Hockey was good for both of us and we were both reasonably good at it.”

Of McGill’s 49 intercollegiate sports programs at the time of the donation, the only teams with full-time head coaching positions were football, women’s volleyball, swimming, men’s and women’s basketball, and men’s hockey. The Kerrs’ gift allowed Smith to assume a full-time role as the first “Kerr Women’s Hockey Coach.”

“Once the Kerrs’ gift came along, [it] allowed the department to free me up to exclusively coach hockey and that clearly made a big difference in every aspect of coaching, but especially in the recruiting end of things, which is such an important part of the responsibility,” said Smith.

The donation has helped the Martlets to grow into a true powerhouse in Canadian women’s hockey, posting a 145-9 record in league play under Smith since 2007. 

“I think that Smith has done a fantastic job in terms of coaching the girls, recruiting, keeping them focused […] he’s super.” said David, “That’s really what makes the team work I think—that people want to go and play for him.”

Smith attributes the team’s success to the generosity of its benefactors and the calibre of players that the program is able to attract. The Kerrs’ continued gifts to the program have allowed for the hiring of a second full-time Assistant Coach, Alyssa Cecere.

“The Kerrs have been tremendously loyal and tremendously generous to the Martlet hockey program. It’s clearly made a huge difference,” said Smith, “We’re one of the few programs in the CIS that has two full-time coaches on staff for women’s hockey.” 

The Martlets continue to forge a legacy of success in the RSEQ and CIS. This season, the defending National Champions went all the way to the title game again as the No. 1 seed, only to fall to the Western Mustangs in a disappointing end to the season. Over the last decade, Martlet hockey has risen from being just another team at McGill to becoming one of the signature programs at the university, as CIS basketball is to Carleton or football is to Laval. Under Smith’s strong and committed leadership, there can only be greater things to come from the Martlets. For his part, he attributes the team’s many successes over the last decade to the players who have come to McGill.

“We have had a successful program and it’s easy to answer why: It’s because of the people involved in the program,” said Smith, “The quality of student-athletes that we get at McGill is just tremendous. I can get a whole team of overachievers and they just want to do so well both in the classroom and on the ice. It’s a joy to coach that kind of dynamic, motivated, energetic group of young women.”

McGill’s appeal to Canada’s top student-athletes, the greater resources available to the program, and the coaching prowess that Smith has proven over his career have combined over the past decade to grow Martlet hockey from just another team at McGill to one of the country’s marquee athletic programs. The rest of the coaching staff and the team will be busy in the off-season, welcoming a new cast of talented players and regrouping for another deep playoff push in 2016. 

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