By Jesse Vineyard/GCU Staff
There are a couple ways one can look at the inaugural season for Grand Canyon University Women’s Ice Hockey. From an outsider’s view, it didn’t go well. One win out of 19 games seldom constitutes a positive outlook. From a player’s perspective, it’s the opposite.
Talk to anyone on the team, and the message is the same. From day one, the team has improved mightily on the ice. From day one, strangers became friends. From day one, the Lopes started making history and building toward a bright future.
“When we were first out there, we were all nervous to be together since we didn’t know each other at all,” Lopes’ freshman forward Tuesday Chavez said. “After our first game and getting to know each other with all the volunteering work we’ve done and all the team dinners, we really started to build a culture together.”
The Lopes began the season with a 1-1 tie against Arizona State University, with the first-ever goal being scored by Emily Exner off a rebound. It was a promising start to the year, notably against the rival Sun Devils. However, losses piled up. Ten straight in the loss column to start the year isn’t the beginning anyone would want, but the team continued to work, and found a turning point during their lengthy road trip to the Western Women’s Collegiate Hockey League Showcase in Colorado in early November.
There, the Lopes came home with their first-ever win, 1-0, over ASU, with the lone goal being scored by Exner. The players themselves came home with a refreshed attitude for the rest of the season.
“We really clicked the day we beat ASU,” said Chavez, a freshman business administration major from Albuquerque, New Mexico. “It was our first win, so everyone was stoked about it, but that’s when we really started to connect. We were playing as a team, and knew where everyone was going to be.”
The win would be the lone victory on the season, but the trip served another purpose – a chance for the team to continue developing friendships. Much like the other longer road trips to Missouri and Minnesota, the players are around each other the entire time, so there is always an opportunity to bond. Back home, that communication doesn’t end. Working together at practices is one thing, but meeting up for dinners and study time builds those relationships further.
“On campus, we’ve made an effort hanging around each other all the time and that translates very well to being on the ice,” said Kylie Kramer, a sophomore pre-medicine major from El Mirage. “Everyone loves food, so we’re always eating together. We do a lot of homework together, too.
“Even if we do end up messing around more than doing homework.”
Priorities aside, the team connection exists. It is needed, too, because college is more than just playing hockey. Encouraging each other while managing time with practice, homework and simply just having a social life has been a significant part of the players’ first year. For a player like Exner, a freshman marketing major, being far away from family was another obstacle. Nearly 2,000 miles away from her home in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Exner found the difficulties of college life early on, but has matured nonetheless – both on campus and on the ice.
“I learned a lot in the first semester about myself,” Exner said. “It was my first time ever moving, and I’m really far away from my parents. It was hard sometimes, because usually it was my parents who were the ones enforcing. Here, I’ve learned how to adapt to new players and different ways people play. I’ve definitely grown a lot in that aspect.”
While growing in and out of the rink, one word has been used throughout the season: positivity. On paper, the record and stats show a struggling team. Before the season, having to meet brand-new teammates and playing in a more competitive level of hockey only added to the adversity. But the players have seen it differently and have taken it all as a challenge.
“We know it’s a development year – like it is for anyone,” Kramer said. “Anyone who signed this year, they knew they were coming into a developmental year. We didn’t know what to expect in this division, so it was awesome to have everyone develop as a team together.”
The Lopes progressed even more as a team with constant volunteer work. Creating meals at Feed My Starving Children, packing food boxes at Feed Our Babies USA and helping to grow the game of hockey by taking part in World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend were just some of the volunteer work GCU has done throughout the season.
“It’s really important because not only are you giving back to the community, but you have that time set out and you have no other worries,” Kramer said. “You’re doing something together, and you’re just working as a team.”
Looking ahead, excitement is already spreading. With recruiting well underway, already a few commitments from Lopes’ Head Coach Natalie Rossi, and after playing a full season as a team, the Lopes can see a stronger second year coming up.
“Our future is very bright,” Exner said. “Next season, people may be expecting us to be the same team, but I know all of us are going to be working hard in the offseason. We have some big plans, and I think other teams should be ready for a different team next year.”