© Herald Photo by Dave Leaderhouse
Former Prince Albert A&W Bears player Kaitlin Willoughby joined her current coach Steve Kook from the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for a presentation to current Bears players and their families last weekend at the Art Hauser Centre. Willoughby is in her first season with the Huskies and has had an explosive start scoring seven times and setting up six others in 16 games.
From the moment Kaitlin Willoughby first started playing with the Prince Albert A&W Bears at the tender age of 13, it was obvious she had talent to be a good hockey player.
Willoughby lived up to that billing by scoring 97 points in 96 games over five seasons with the Bears and now in her rookie season with the University of Saskatchewan women’s hockey team, she is turning heads again.
“We knew Kaitlin was highly offensive, but we are surprised at the strength and speed she has brought,” says U of S head coach Steve Kook. “We know she worked awfully hard in the summer. She was good with the puck in Midget AAA, but maybe she didn’t need to use all the speed she has.”
Willoughby has picked up where she left off in Prince Albert as the 18-year-old winger has scored seven times and set up six others in the first 16 games of her university career. Her performance has helped the Huskies to post an 11-3-2 record and trail the University of British Columbia by just one point in the Canada West standings.
“I could have had five times more (goals) if I bore down in close,” laughs Willoughby, who is taking Arts and Sciences classes while adjusting to the life of a student-athlete. “I can’t seem to score on a breakaway.”
Willoughby credits her teammates with a lot of her success, especially those she has played with before in Prince Albert. Having former Bears Chelsey Sundby and Carlee Hrenkiw on the roster took away some of the initial shock of moving up to the higher level.
“Having friends who have played in the league has made it better,” admits Willoughby. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I guess I am a bit surprised.”
Kook says he has used Willoughby in all facets of the game except for penalty killing. While pleased with her offensive production, Kook says Willoughby still has to learn more about the defensive aspect of the game.
“It takes time to understand what has to be done in the defensive zone,” says Kook. “Her strength and speed make up for her play in our zone.”
“There’s not much in Kaitlin we’re unhappy with,” adds Kook.
The Bears have been a great source of talent for Kook over the years as Danny Stone, Teegan Heintz, Courtney Hillman, Kelsey Kirkham and Amber Broker are other grads who have played with the Huskies recently. Stone graduated from the program last spring as the second leading scorer all-time at the U of S and is now playing professionally in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Kook was in Prince Albert last weekend to talk to the current crop of Bears players and he brought Willoughby with him to talk to her former teammates about her experiences during the early part of her university career.
“I’m just going to talk about being ready for the next step,” said Kook before he and Willoughby spoke to the players and their parents following a 3-2 Bears’ shootout loss to the Swift Current Wildcats. “There are so many kids coming out of Midget AAA and prep schools – kids have to market themselves.”
“There are a lot of opportunities for girls to play hockey,” added Kook. “There are over a 1,000 kids we get contact from. They have to actively promote themselves.”
Willoughby says playing hockey isn’t the only thing players have to be ready for.
“It’s not easy, that’s for sure,” notes Willoughby of the juggling athletics with school work. “Obviously hockey is important, but you have to be ready for school too. You have to be good at both.”
If the early returns are any indication the Huskies have another gem from the Bears’ program and more are undoubtedly going to follow. Willoughby has set the bar before and she hopes she can do it again at the university level.