Wednesday, 17 April 2019

Gone With No Return Date

I was excitedly tweeting about the Jets defeating the Blues in Game Four in overtime on the strength of a Kyle Connor goal when I heard it a sound. It wasn't a familiar sound, but I'm pretty sure it was audible for most to hear. It wasn't picked up by any major news outlets nor did it make any local reports outside of Mike Sawatzky's article in the Winnipeg Free Press so I'm not surprised that very few actually heard it, but it stopped me cold in my tracks. What sound did I hear, you ask? There was a crack in the planet, and it shook my world pretty significantly.

Let me explain this. For the last number of years, you're aware that I've been part of the radio and webcast broadcast team for the University of Manitoba Bisons women's hockey team. We've established some pretty great relationships with the players and the team, and we're always pulling for them to ascend to bigger, better, and greater heights. Venla Hovi's success following her career at the university is something I've followed very closely, and I'm extremely happy for all her success. My hope is that we'd see more players from the Bisons have successes on the bigger hockey stage in the future, and one of those women whose future seemed brightest was goaltender Lauren Taraschuk.

Until this happened.
Record scratch, double-take, jaw drop. In that order.

Lauren's reasons for the decision to leave with no timetable for a return nor a commitment to returning at all, as per Sawatzky's article, were personality conflicts and the coaching changes over the last few seasons which, admittedly, would take its toll on any young athlete. She wouldn't elaborate much further, but she doesn't have to based on those reasons. I'm quite comfortable without Lauren throwing anyone under the bus, but that's not her personality as it is.

It should be noted that Lauren did say she's doing well when I asked her if she was ok considering that there will likely be some surprise over this announcement that made its way into the print edition of the Winnipeg Free Press today. I want to be clear that I could care less about hockey or who did what or anything of that nature when it comes to the well-being of a 19 year-old woman who I consider a friend. She's always been honest and open in our conversations, and I have no reason to believe she'd be covering something up when I spoke with her today. Her well-bring is of the utmost importance beyond everything else, and she said she's doing well. That's good and brings me some relief.

What did bother me, however, was that, according to the article, she was prepared to leave the team in December. She instead played through the problems she was having, helping Manitoba to a second-straight U SPORTS National Championship appearance where they were one goal short of knocking off the eventual champions in the Guelph Gryphons in the opening game before rebounding with a pair of strong efforts against UPEI and Toronto. If she was bothered by everything that was happening in December, it's rather shocking that the coaching staff were blind to what was happening on their team, particularly their star netminder. Lauren isn't one to complain or sulk - she's a warrior and will suck it up for the team - but there had to be signs that this coaching staff either missed or ignored.

On top of that, the leadership in the room should have picked up on whatever was going on as well. It's hard for me to write these words, but how do the captains of the defending national champions not notice significant personality conflicts on the team and try to either resolve them or find an acceptable solution with the parties? And this isn't to say that Lauren was one of those parties. She's a pretty well-adjusted young lady, in my experiences with her, and her personality seems adaptable to most, if not all, situations. However, if there were significant conflicts between the ladies in the room, where was the leadership?

Regardless of my questions that will largely go unanswered, there's no doubt that Lauren was overplayed this season as she was on the ice in 31 of 35 games for the Bisons. That's an enormous workload when one considers the course work she's required to also put in to remain academically-eligible to play, but it was almost like the Bisons rested their season on her shoulders with little regard for the abilities of backup netminders Erin Fargey and Devan Johnson. No one was likely to usurp the crease from Taraschuk, but would it have killed the coaching staff to have given Lauren a lighter workload on the ice over the course of the season? As a result of the mismanagement of the netminders, the Bisons will now enter 2019-20 with two goaltenders who have six appearance combined in their careers. Not ideal at all.

Let me be clear here: whatever happens in this upcoming season will not be pinned on Lauren Taraschuk's decision to step away from the team. Fargey and Johnson are extremely capable and talented netminders who will suit up being a lineup that features ten new faces next season. It's not ideal, but it is what it is. Again, this likely could have been better than what it seems, but there's no denying that last season's overplaying of Taraschuk has come back to bite the Bisons in the rear. C'est la vie, and, hopefully, lesson learned for the coaching staff.

At this point, my only concern is Lauren's well-being, and she has stated that she's doing well. When it comes to university athletics, U SPORTS has never shied away from the fact that student-athletes are students first and athletes second. In following that belief, Lauren stepping away to better herself will ensure her long-term success rather than going through another season where she's unhappy. That should be the goal of all university hockey programs: ensuring that their student-athletes will have long-term success whether that's in the classroom, on the ice, or both.

While it won't be the same in not seeing her familiar wink and big smile as she skates by my spot between the benches next season, Lauren Taraschuk will always be a champion at life in my eyes. Glory and championships on the ice will come and go, and they won't define who this young woman is to me. She's an incredible person who deserves to be happy and healthy - mentally, emotionally, and physically - and I will never question her decision to do what's right for her.

That's what Lauren did, and she will always have my unwavering support no matter where her next steps take her.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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