Three Mustangs are set to land in Kazakhstan this Saturday for one of the largest international multi-sport tournaments in the world. But they won’t be landing as Western Mustangs; they’ll be landing as members of Team Canada’s women’s hockey team, ready to compete for their country at the upcoming Universiade.
“It's always been a dream. I'm sure if you talk to any women's hockey player, that's the ultimate goal,” said Brianna Iazzolino, a fifth-year player and assistant captain on the Mustangs women’s hockey team. “To have a variation of representing your country at a university level, it's a really surreal way to end my hockey career.”
Former teammate and Western alumna, Katelyn Gosling, will join Iazzolino on the Team Canada roster. Gosling, who currently plays for the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), was a member of the Mustangs for five years, serving as assistant captain in her final year. She is one of two returning athletes to Team Canada, having been on the team two years ago when the Universiade was in Spain.
Mustangs head coach Kelly Paton, who is set to take on an assistant coach role for Team Canada, will be joining the pair. Guelph Gryphons head coach Rachel Flanagan will be taking over head coach duties.
“I have a good handle on the expectations on her end from me,” said Paton. “We've had some discussions and a few meetings surrounding our technical and tactical plans for the team.”
Paton got the coaching position mid-2016 after she sent in an application to the selection committee. She initially received an information packet and deliberated with the Mustangs athletic department before submitting her application in the hopes of gaining more coaching experience that she could bring back to the Mustangs bench.
“We all agreed that this was something that could help me in my development as a coach,” said Paton. “It's obviously an honour to be selected for such a high-profile team and to be given this opportunity."
Paton was also granted the opportunity to nominate certain players to the selection camp for the team, which took place in Calgary in August. Iazzolino and Gosling were among two of the names that Paton put forward, making the team out of camp.
“This year was the first time that they did the whole tryout. Before, they just picked the team and let you know where you're going,” said Iazzolino. “To meet the girls that are going to come with us, it was cool to build that rapport early on.”
The team will be looking to improve on their second place finish in Spain two years ago where they incurred a heartbreaking 3-0 loss to Russia in the gold medal game. The Russian team proved to be fierce rivals, as they had sent their national team who finished sixth at the 2014 Olympics.
“When [Gosling] went two years ago to Spain, that was their biggest competition,” said Iazzolino. “I’m not sure if it's the same this year, but I'm anticipating Russia will be our biggest competition again.”
Predicting who is going to be the biggest competition in this tournament can be challenging due to the changing nature of the teams. It’s never the exact same eight countries participating, and even returning teams will have completely new rosters with each Universiade. Pinpointing one team as the 'team to beat' is challenging, but Paton’s got her money on Team Canada.
“I think from a depth perspective, the team we're bringing over probably has the strongest depth throughout our roster,” said Paton. “Our expectation is, obviously we want to go over and compete well, but obviously we want to be successful by winning it all.”
Paton isn’t the only one hoping for an international championship. Iazzolino has the bar set high for the team and has her sights set on bringing home the banner.
“Hopefully I can finish off my hockey career with another national championships and an international championship in Kazakhstan,” said Iazzolino.
The team will start the tournament by facing China on Jan. 28 before facing off against Great Britain and Kazakhstan to finish off the round robin stage. The medal round will begin on Feb. 4, where Canada will seek to redeem their gold medal loss from two years ago.