Whirlwind month for Willoughby

Photo Submitted Prince Albert’s Kaitlin Willoughby hoists the Clarkson Cup after the Calgary Inferno captured the Canadian Women’s Hockey League championship in Toronto on March 24.

To say that March was busy for Kaitlin Willoughby would be a massive understatement.

In addition to her nursing studies at the University of Saskatchewan, the forward from Prince Albert captured a silver medal with Canada at the Winter Universiade in Russia, won the Clarkson Cup in her rookie season with the Calgary Inferno and celebrated her 24th birthday last Tuesday.

“I’ve been used to being busy with doing my school work and playing for the Huskies the last five years, but this was quite the month,” Willoughby said.

“The adjustment of dealing with the jet lag of coming back from Russia and then getting ready for the Clarkson Cup might have been the biggest challenge now that I look back on it, but when are you in the moment you just have to grind through it.”

Willoughby’s adventures began at the start of the month as she made her second trip to the Winter Universiade with Team Canada.

“A couple of us had been to the tournament in 2017, so we used our experience to really help the girls feel more at ease when they went out there,” said Willoughby, who was joined on the team by fellow Prince Albert product and current Huskies netminder Jessica Vance.

Although Canada ended up losing in the gold medal game to Russia, it was another memorable experience for Willoughby.

“I was hoping to get the upper hand on Russia this time around after losing to them two years ago, but it was still a great experience,” Willoughby said.

“Obviously it’s a bit disappointing at the time when your that close to winning a gold medal, but when you look back on the friendships that you make with your teammates, those are the things that you’ll remember forever.”

Willoughby’s next big event came a couple of weeks later in Toronto as she was a part of the Inferno’s 5-2 win over Les Canadiennes de Montreal in the Clarkson Cup final, which gave the Calgary based side their second Canadian Women’s Hockey League title in the last four years.

“With that game and my birthday being a couple of days later, I don’t think I’ve ever had so many messages on my phone in that short of a time span,” Willoughby joked.

“I think what made our team a successful one this year was how we were able to work through some of the obstacles that went our way, as we stuck together no matter what was going on. The Olympians we had on our team were so helpful to the young players such as myself, which made our group a fun one to be around.”

A seventh round pick by the Inferno in last year’s CWHL draft, Willoughby had a goal and five assists in 27 games for in her rookie campaign following a five-season stint with the Huskies.

“The transition from U Sports to the CWHL is probably more dramatic than it was when I moved up from playing with the (Prince Albert) Bears to the Huskies,” Willoughby said.

“The biggest thing that I had to get used to was the overall pace of the game. There were things that I could get away with a year ago, but the decision making at this level is basically done in a split second, especially when you are going up against the top players in the world.”

Willoughby’s plans for next season are now up in the air, as the CWHL announced on Sunday that they would be shutting down operations.

The American-based National Women’s Hockey League is planning on adding teams in Montreal and Toronto following the news, but the status of the Inferno franchise remains unclear.

“It was upsetting to hear the news but the amount of support that all of us in the league have received in the last couple of days has been incredible,” Willoughby said.

“There’s been people that I don’t normally talk to that have gotten in touch and said they were thinking of me and the other players, so it’s been great to see just how much the league has made an impact on everyone.”

In the meantime, Willoughby is currently focused on the completion of her nursing studies in Saskatoon before venturing out into the real world.

“I have one week of classes left, two final exams and then I’m hopefully done with school,” Willoughby joked.

“I’m looking forward to the end of my studies, but it’s going to be a big transition as I’ve been at school for the last six years. I plan to keep hockey as a big part of my life, but with the news over the last couple of days, it’s pretty much a waiting game to see what happens next.”