Special to the Herald
SASKATOON, Sask. – When crunch time came, Jacquelyne Chief was hoping fate would create a way to stay close to home.
While playing her final campaign as captain of the Prince Albert Northern Bears female under-18 AAA hockey team last season, Chief committed to Maryville University Saints Women’s Hockey Team in Saint Louis, Missouri. The Saints are a Division I team in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
Originally, her goal was to play in the Canada West Conference in U Sports. As time drew closer to depart for the United States, the hand of fate sent a gift the smooth skating defender had been looking for.
“It was really late in summer like end of July,” said Chief. “I just got a message from (University of Saskatchewan Huskies Women’s Team head coach) Steve (Kook) saying that he had an unexpected D-spot open.
“He was just wondering if he could persuade me to come here to the U of S. Sure enough, it worked. It was a big decision to make since I had already been committed to the States, but I’m glad I am here.”
After deciding to join the Huskies, Chief hasn’t looked back. She has played in all of the Huskies 14 regular season games to date posting a plus-one rating in the plus-minus department.
It is pretty rare for first year defenders to play regularly in U Sports, especially being a fresh high school graduate. Chief is already seeing time on the Huskies penalty kill, which includes playing four-on-three kills in overtime.
She felt lots of joy about the fact she could stay relatively close to her home in the Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and to her parents in mother, Tammy Duffee-Chief, and father, Pete. The 18-year-old said people from her home community wouldn’t have been able to see her play as much in person, if she had gone down to the United States.
“The support of my family and my community in Onion Lake I think that helps me a lot, especially with my hockey career,” said Chief, whose Huskies are 9-3-1-1 so far this season. “They’ve all been such a big support system for me.
“I’m happy that I get to stay home, and they get to watch me in person instead of online, if I were to go away.”
She received a very much welcomed surprise during her second regular season game, which happened to fall on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30. Before the clash with the U of Manitoba Bisons at the Huskies home rink in Merlis Belsher Place, Chief took part in a pre-game ceremony, where elders from the Onion Lake Cree Nation wrapped her in a blanket as part of the traditional blanket ceremony.
“I was honoured,” said Chief, who stands 5-foot-6. “I think it was really important for everybody in the stands and both teams to experience something like that.
“It is becoming more normal, but I think it was important for everybody to see that this is part of my life, and it can be part of the game as well.”
On the ice, Kook said Chief’s strongest asset is her skating skill. The bench boss said the young defender is still learning all the nuances regarding positioning the defensive zone in the U Sports game.
Kook said Chief’s skating ability has allowed her to recover, if she gets in a bad spot in the defensive zone. When Chief gets the puck, Kook said she is able to get it out of traffic and get the play transitioning up ice.
While Chief has already played in some situations rookie defenders don’t normally play in at the U Sports level, Kook is planning to see where Chief’s role could further expand out to.
“I want to play her in a few more spots,” said Kook. “Some of those spots that I want to play her in will just come with experience.
“The only way that you do that is you play a game and you stick her in a few (spots). I’d like to get her in on special teams. I think she skates well, sees the ice well, moves the puck and passes really well.
“She just gets a little bit nervous up there, and sometimes expectations for a younger player can weigh on you more than what your skill level is.”
Kook said defence is the hardest position to learn and adjust to every time a player moves up a level in the game. The veteran coach said rookie defenders go through a learning curve of making plays in the defensive zone, and when they get the puck, they have to make the correct reads in transitioning the puck up ice.
Some of the reads might include bringing the puck up centre ice or passing it up centre ice, if opponents are taking away the boards. Most defenders at lower levels are focused on getting the puck out of their zone by clearing it out off the boards or glass.
Kook said Chief sees the ice at an advanced level and thinks the game at a high level too. The two-time U Sports coach of the year said the biggest adjustment Chief has had to make is in trusting her teammates are going to be in the right spots when it comes to making plays.
“I think the game is a little bit easier for her,” said Kook. “She just has to allow herself to play.
“When she comes around the back of the net or out of the corner, there is more than one choice for her, because players are where they are supposed to be. Sometimes, she just gets in her own way and worries a little bit too much. We’re just trying to get her to trust what she sees, because a lot of times it is the right call.”
Chief said you could quickly tell how much the experience of the players at the U Sports level makes the game a lot crisper than it is at the under-18 AAA level. At the U Sports level, Chief plays with and against players that can be 23 or 24-years-old including some who have had experience in Canada’s national team system.
When it comes to making plays, Chief said it has been a new experience playing with teammates who are consistently in the spots they are supposed to be in.
“I think it has been a lot more fun,” said Chief. “I am able to enjoy the game.
“It is not that I didn’t enjoy the game in (under-18 AAA), but I think there was a lot more stress when I was in (under-18 AAA). It was a big difference from (under-18 AAA) to here. Here, it is like everybody knows where they are supposed to be.
“It is like you put the puck there, and that is the girl who is there. It is easy to make plays.”
Chief also wants to set a good example for the youth and young girls in her home area and the Indigenous community as a whole. She would like to be the example of if they see her play they believe they can do it too.
“Because I am one of like a handful of players in Canada West that come from an Indigenous background or who are First Nations, I think the small group of us are being trailblazers for the youth,” said Chief. “Like back home, that is all I want to do not only for the female youth but all the youth just so they can see that it is possible.
“You do go through ups and downs, but you just have to really work hard and remember who you are and where you come from.”
Chief is aware that she is still relatively at the beginning as far as her U Sports career goes, and that she still has four-and-a-half seasons still to enjoy with the Huskies. She is looking forward to everything that comes with the journey ahead.
“I think it is super exciting, because here I can grow as a player and get better and maybe even go pro,” said Chief. “I think this is where I want to be.
“I can’t wait for the following years, because I know I will get stronger and stronger every year.”
Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer. He blogs frequently at stankssermon.blogspot.com.