Photo by Chung Chow
Natalie Korenic started playing ice hockey at the age of six. But like many kids, she was playing street hockey long before that.
“When I was three, the kids in the neighbourhood, who were all quite a few years older than me, decided they needed a goalie,” she recalls. “So they stuck some pads on me that nearly went up to my chin and told me to stand in net.”
Fast forward, and Korenic is now both playing and coaching the game she grew to love.
This weekend, she will trade in her place as an assistant coach behind the bench of the Richmond Ravens’ Peewee A team to suit up with the Richmond Devils, who are hosting the senior AA women’s provincials at the Richmond Ice Centre. However, she’ll doubtless be keeping an eye on the other action as the Richmond Ravens girls’ hockey association hosts its 21st annual Ice Classic. That event, also through April 1, features recreation teams at the Initiation, Novice cross-ice, Peewee, Bantam and Midget levels from throughout Western Canada and the Western United States.
GROWING THE GAME
“Female hockey has changed dramatically from the time I started,” Korenic says. “When I started there was a total of three teams in Richmond. Today, there are three teams for nine- and 10-year-olds alone. It’s really incredible to see that kind of growth and interest in the sport.”
Women’s hockey has enjoyed strong growth globally. Korenic says this year’s Olympics was a perfect indication. While Korea didn’t have a good team, the fact they had a team at all shows we’re moving in the right direction.
“Last year, China came to Vancouver and played against several teams, including my own, in the South Coast league. It’s great to see Canada do well, but we need a stronger level of hockey across the board.”
Not long ago, there were calls to take women’s hockey out of the Olympics because Canada or the United States consistently beat everyone handily. But as more countries begin developing their teams, with the Scandinavian countries in particular making big strides, Korenic sees a bright future. She says the fact NHLers didn’t participate in men’s hockey at these Olympics also meant more people were watching women’s hockey, and were awed by the skill.
However, she stresses that level of exposure once every four years is not enough. There are two professional women’s leagues in North America, but no teams in B.C. And none of the players get paid much.
“A great inspiration for how to have a properly functioning women’s league is Australian rules football. They brought in a women’s league two years ago and they have been filling stadiums.”
Class valedictorian of her 2010 graduating class at Steveston-London Secondary School, _she is now business operations lead at Aspect Biosystems. The company is at the leading edge of 3B bioprinting and tissue engineering. But the visionary 20-something Korenic is taking a more traditional approach to the B.C. women’s championships. As cliche at it may be, she says the Devils are approaching them one game at a time.
“We’re not a high scoring team, but we’re fast and hard working so we need to use that to our advantage. Every team in our league can beat any other.”
Korenic says there are no dreams of a pro hockey career for any of the players competing in this weekend’s tournament. They’re all either working or going to school, and hockey is a way to stay active or socially connected.
“We are all fortunate to have a place to play competitively after minor or college hockey, so I hope that our league is able to continually improve and grow. I hope the B.C. championships helps promote this (opportunity).”
EXPERIENCE AT EVERY LEVEL
Not unlike her own journey as a player, Korenic has coached every level of Ravens’ hockey. She is currently assisting with the Peewee A team.
“I did one year of Can-Skate when I was five, but switched over to hockey the following season,” she explains. “I was wanting to play hockey like the boys, but the switch was also instigated by the fact we had to do a skating carnival at the end of the year. All the girls had to dress up as Miss Piggy in pink tutus. That definitely sealed the deal.”
Korenic thinks it’s a misconception kids need to learn to skate before starting hockey. At the young ages, she argues, hockey is a great place to learn to skate.
“With all the gear on, you’re not afraid to fall. In fact, you’re taught how to fall and get up properly.”
Korenic was one of only five players on her Initiation squad, making the Atom Bulldogs her first “real team.” But there was a wide range of ages, the youngest player being five and the oldest 10. With female hockey still in its infancy, such age gaps were typical in her first few years. She played Peewee for five years between the ages of seven and 12.
“My favourite team would have to be either my second-year of Peewee or second year of Midget,” she says. “I don’t think we won any trophies or banners, but I remember that being such a great Peewee season. I think it was that we had such a cohesive group of players, a supportive parent group who enjoyed spending time a the rink together, and a fantastic coach who pushed us to work hard while still having fun.”
SANDER STRONG INFLUENCE
The Midget season was similar.
“AJ Sander was a fantastic coach through all my three years. He creates a special kind of atmosphere, and you really become entrenched in it.”
Having coached more than a thousand games during his long, and decorated, coaching career, Sander has contributed to the development of female coaches as much as anyone, Korenic suggests.
“Over the last several years, he has brought back many of his past players and developed their coaching abilities. When I played for him, all his assistants were past players as well as from his days coaching boys.”
Korenic doesn’t know what specifically sparked her passion to coach, just that it was there. She wanted to help young players, just like those who helped her.
“It’s just different when you have a younger female coach because you feel like you can relate to them,” she says. “You start to see yourself in them and see the potential of what you can do.”
In her 12 years of minor hockey, Korenic had two such assistant coaches in Dana Pretty and Katie Malysh.
“Now more than ever, we see more women playing the sport and increasingly more women are referees. But I still don’t think are enough women behind the bench, and not enough being done to put them there.”
PROUD OF PEEWEE’S PROGRESS
After coaching with the Midget A team for the last three years, Korenic realized she missed working with a younger age group. She credits Peewee A head coach Gord Taylor for inviting her to join the staff.
“I’ve learned a lot from him and we’ve had a great time coaching together this season,” she says. “We came in with only one returning player, and the rest had never played rep before. So everyone learned a lot about what it takes to compete at that level.”
One of the biggest differences is the tenacity and physicality required.
“Sure it’s non-contact, but you still have to get in the corners and bump people around a bit to get the puck,” Korenic explains. “In September we lost several games by seven, eight goals. But our players wanted to learn and get better and were willing to work hard for it. By the end of our season we were having one- and two-goal games, and we finished first at a tournament in San Jose in January. It was great to see the players build their confidence.”
Korenic says everyone wants to win, especially the top prize at the end of the year. And she believes it’s important players work towards these goals. But at the end of the day, it’s important to put things in perspective and measure success by improvement.
HARD WORK HAS ITS REWARDS
“Hard works beats skill,” she says. “Be aggressive, determined and relentless. As a coach, I would rather have a weaker players that works hard than a more skilled player who is lazy.”
Korenic also implores her players not come off the ice saying: “I could have been better.”
“I heard this from AJ throughout my years in Midget, and it’s something that has stuck with me. Now I pass it along to the players I coach. He instilled in us the importance of working hard for ourselves, but also playing for the rest of the people on the ice with us.”
She says communication is another key to success. But for whatever reason, younger players in particular have a hard time grasping its importance.
“In the league I play in (Senior A women’s) communication is critical, and you can hear players talking the whole game.”
As much as Korenic loves hockey, though, she eventually needs a rest. And she’s looking forward to an off-season.
“I am a strong advocate for not playing hockey all year round. I don’t think any kid should be playing just one sport. Kids often get burned out because they play a full season though the winter, then play spring hockey, and then do camps through the summer. It’s great to do a camp or two to stay fresh, but throughout my years of minor hockey I switched between softball, lacrosse and field hockey. Not only is it important to develop the different muscle groups and transferable athletic skills, but you also get to meet different groups of people.”