Hudak and Lieffers share enlightening stories at ‘This Girl Can’ night

Brittany Hudak shows off her bronze medal, which is one of two that she won at the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing. --Kyle Kosowan/Daily Herald

Minor hockey players filled the Ches Leach Lounge for the second annual ‘This Girl Can’ night at the Art Hauser Centre prior to Wednesday’s game between the Prince Albert Raiders and Brandon Wheat Kings.

The event was a huge success, with Paralympian Brittany Hudak and 2022 Olympic women’s hockey official Cianna Lieffers among those who spoke at the event. Both women shared their life stories, and some encouraging words for the young ladies in attendance.

Hudak’s story was an enlightening one. From mopping floors at the Art Hauser Centre in her teenage years, she never thought she would be skiing at the Paralympics. In fact, she wasn’t even introduced to the sport until she was 19, when she was pulled aside by hall of fame Paralympic skier Collette Bourgonje when Hudak was working at Canadian Tire.

The rest is history from there, as Hudak now had three bronze medals at the Paralympics, most recently winning two bronze medals at the 2022 Games in Beijing.

“It’s a really cool story in my opinion,” Hudak said. “So many people are used to Olympians just starting out with their sport from a young age. What I like about my story is that I was going down a regular life path of working and feeling like that was going to be enough for me. When I had a bigger opportunity, I wasn’t scared to have that big dream and take that risk. I like the fact that it makes me a more well rounded person, and it makes me appreciate the opportunity in sport so much more.

“I know what it’s like to be the girl mopping the floors for minimum wage. And then to get to represent your country on the world stage is just a surreal feeling.”

For the young athletes who maybe aren’t sure what direction they want to go in sports or in education, Hudak said they still have a lot of time to make up their mind. Even if they have a goal set in mind, an opportunity may come up that is too good too pass up, much like what happened with herself.

“You can change your life path at any point,” she said. “The fact that I didn’t start skiing until I was 19 just helps to show that you can change what path you take at any point. It’s never too late to find the things that you are passionate about, and just be open to where those things can actually take you.”

Lieffers exemplifies Hudak’s point of changing your life path. Starting off as a hockey player, she quickly discovered a passion for a different side of the game: officiating. Giving up the jersey and stick, she donned the striped sweater and whistle, and began her life as a referee.

Cianna Lieffers added another milestone to her officiating resume this winter, as she was an official for the women’s hockey championships at the 2022 Olympics in China. –Kyle Kosowan/Daily Herald

Naturally as an official, dealing with lippy coaches and parents became a normal obstacle of daily life. Lieffers was also a victim of choice words thrown her way, and decided to step away from the game in her early teenage years. Her mother convinced her to don the stripes again and return to the ice to call the shots, something she is glad she did.

“I always had a strong willed personality and I could handle the criticism,” Lieffers said. “Reffing was something that I did have to work for, but I also had a good personality for it, and I was well suited for it.

“I started my hockey career as a player. Growing up in a small town and having two older brothers had an influence on me. It was just a natural progression for me to follow in their footsteps and to play hockey. At the same time, I followed my brother into officiating, and I was way more successful with the officiating side than the playing side.

“When I first started reffing, as I was learning and developing and making those early mistakes, I took it a lot more personal. With experience, I just took every opportunity to learn from those negative interactions. If I had a coach or a parent who was yelling at me or who was unhappy with a call, I would take it personally and I would be upset. But I used that more as a tool to help me get better, rather than to deter from the game.”

When Lieffers returned to Prince Albert after the 2022 Olympics, she was scheduled to ref a Northern Bears game the next day. Honoured with a flowers, a plaque, and a ceremonial puck drop prior to the game, she says it was cool to return home and soak in that experience as well.

“I landed on Friday at 5 p.m., the day before the game, after 42 hours of travelling, and came back for a 1 p.m. game. No matter how tired or jet lagged I was, there was no way I was missing that game. The support I’ve had from Saskatchewan in general, and here in Prince Albert, having my first start in AAA, and having so many friends and family at the game, it was just a surreal experience.”

At the time when she started officiating, it wasn’t ‘normal’ for a woman to be on that side of hockey. Now with SJHL games, as well as male AAA games under her belt, Lieffers has proven that the barrier between women and men in sports is shrinking. She shared her main message to girls who are thinking about going into a career that is seen as a ‘man’s job’.

“Just like how there weren’t a lot of female officials, if you’re passionate about something and you want to do it, don’t have that negative mindset,” she said. “Don’t let anything stand in your way, whether you’re the first one, the tenth one, or the hundredth person to do whatever it is that you’re pursuing, just go for it. If you have that mindset, you can do anything.”