Vance and Willoughby helping to inspire next generation of players

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Calgary Hitmen captain Mark Kastelic, left, Prince Albert Northern Bears president Laura Quesnel, Jessica Vance and Morgan Willoughby of the Saskatchewan Huskies, Kailey Ledoux, Jessie Herner and Brooklyn Anderson of the Prince Albert Northern Bears and Prince Albert Raiders captain Zack Hayes take part in the ceremonial puck drop prior to Tuesday’s WHL game at the Art Hauser Centre.

As they worked their way through the minor hockey ranks, Jessica Vance and Morgan Willoughby had a number of role models that they looked up to.

The Prince Albert Northern Bears alumni and Saskatchewan Huskies teammates are now mentors for the future generation of female hockey stars, as they were the guests of honour for the Prince Albert Raiders’ first annual “This Girl Can” night.

“It’s pretty cool to be a part of this as the person that’s up on the stage speaking to the audience and trying to inspire them,” said Vance, who will be wrapping up U Sports career as a goaltender for the Huskies next fall.

“I think the biggest message I wanted to leave with everyone that was here is the fact that anything is possible and that no dream is too big. Whether that’s in hockey or in pursuing a career, you can go out and do anything that you set your mind to.”

In addition to their speeches, Vance and Willoughby were joined by Prince Albert Northern Bears president Laura Quesnel and current Bears players Kailey Ledoux, Jessie Herner and Brooklyn Anderson for the ceremonial puck drop ahead of Tuesday’s Western Hockey League contest between the Prince Albert Raiders and the Calgary Hitmen.

The pair also took part in an on-ice practice session, which is similar to their coaching roles that they’ve been involved with in recent summers at the North Female Hockey Program.

“I think it’s important to be involved with things like that,” said Willoughby, who will be graduating from the University of Saskatchewan with an education degree this spring.

“There have been a number of people that have given a lot to me over the years and I want to try and give back to the people here in Prince Albert. This event and the NFHP are ways to help grow the sport and it allows me to be involved in a coaching aspect, especially with my career wrapping up with the Huskies.”

One of the biggest changes since Vance and Willoughby started their careers is the increased opportunities that female hockey players have to take part in the sport.

That wasn’t quite the case for the pair when they started, as Willoughby and her family moved from Canwood to Prince Albert to further her career, while Vance played in boys’ leagues for a number of seasons.

“When I was younger you didn’t have the chance to play on girls’ teams until you got to pee wee,” Willoughby said. “To see the smaller communities now starting to have girls’ team is awesome and I think that’s important as we go forward.”

“I know that Hockey Canada really likes it when your playing girls’ hockey and I think that will allow the girls’ here to get noticed more and have that extra step ahead of everyone else.”

According to Cliff Mapes, who is the executive director of business operations for the Raiders, future “This Girl Can” nights will also focus on the opportunities for females that are outside of the sports world.

“The important message from Morgan and Jessica’s speeches was not just how sports is a place where you can set goals and move forward, but also the importance of education,” Mapes said.

“As we continue this event in the coming years, we’ll bring in people from the business world who are leaders in Prince Albert and have them talk about some of those goals they’ve reached after they finished playing sports and going to school.”