As the first-ever full-time female hockey head coach at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, 30-year-old Robin Ulrich describes her new role as “A fantastic opportunity. It's basically the highest level of women's hockey outside of the national team.”
This season, the Lampman native was appointed interim head coach of the University's Huskies women's hockey team, while the team's head coach Steve Kook takes a one-year sabbatical for professional development.
“I was able to get a leave of absence from my contract with my school division,” says Ulrich, who teaches high school Physical Education in Lampman. “They were awesome letting me take the opportunity.”
“The entire community of Lampman has been really supportive and they've always helped me celebrate. Even last weekend, four of the kids I taught last year showed up to cheer the Huskies on. They had a sign that said 'Go Coach DJ Rob'. The players joked that the coach has a sign, but they don't.”
Ulrich says her hometown has supported her hockey ambitions from the very beginning.
“I started out figure skating as a kid, but I was friends with all the guys in my class and they all played hockey. So I figured maybe I should play too,” she says. “I went from figure skating to playing hockey. When I was about nine-years-old, I started to play hockey. It was a pretty natural thing in Lampman. I was friends with all the guys who played and there were a few girls from town who played hockey then in Lampman. I wasn't the only one. There was another girl from my grade who played on the same team as I did.”
“I never had those terrible stories about girls playing hockey,” adds Ulrich. “People just accepted it in Lampman. I got dressed in a different dressing room than the boys, but it wasn't like one of those stories with the lone girl player shoved behind a furnace, sitting on a pail or something like that.”
“As for challenges, there's nothing I ever recall being horribly bad,” she says. “If you had a ponytail-and I did- that made you a bit of a target with other teams sometimes. And sometimes, with checking, but they were all just things that as a player, you learn to deal with.”
“I was lucky enough that I got to play on both boys and girls teams every year growing up, except for grades 11 and 12 when I only played girls hockey.”
“There was one year I played for four different teams-boys peewee house, girls peewee, a boys provincial tier team and midget girls.”
“I think I owe a lot of my development as a player to the fact that I had the chance to be on the ice, either practicing or playing, almost every night of the week,” says Ulrich. “I also was lucky enough to have my dad coach me all throughout my minor hockey career. We spent a lot of time in the truck, driving all over the countryside.”
“My entire family was always really supportive-my mom (Maureen), my dad, (Randy) and my sister, Blaire, my grandparents... Everyone was really behind me.”
“My Uncle Buzz (Allan Fleck) and my cousin Tyler (Fleck) both played hockey at a pretty high level, so they encouraged me a lot, too.”
Ulrich's mother, Maureen Ulrich has written young adult novels which take their inspiration-in part- from her daughter's early days as a hockey player.
“Mom's books were inspired by the stories of all the things that happened while I was playing hockey as a kid,” says Ulrich. “But by no means are they about me. I'm not a character.”
“I was in university when they came out, and for me it was very inspiring to see her perseverance, especially with the first book. She approached a number of different publishers and eventually, she got one. It would have been very easy for her to quit, but she pushed through and that's very inspiring to me.”
After being scouted, Ulrich agreed to play hockey for the University of Saskatchewan's Huskies, starting in 2004. In addition to her successful university hockey career, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology degree and a Bachelor of Education degree. During her five-year tenure playing defence, she was voted team captain and won the CanadaWest Conference Student Athlete Award and the Huskie Athletics Female All-Around Athlete Award.
After her playing career, she was a Huskies assistant coach for five years and a scout for two years, some of it dones double-duty from a distance while she taught full-time in Lampman.
“Coaching is very similar to teaching,” says Ulrich. “It's all about your relationships with people. With your players, you trust and believe in them. Our players are scouted, so there's a reason that they fit our Huskie hockey player mould. We have high expectations for them- in hockey, in the classroom and in the community. There's a high degree of excellence and a standard of integrity that they're expected to uphold, all while finding a balance between school, hockey and a social life.”
“They do an amazing job,” she says, adding that she continues to learn from the players she coaches. “We ask a lot of them, too. Every day, they do four or five hours of hockey, besides school. And they keep their(academic) averages up, too. I see them on the bus on our way to a tournament, for example and I see how hard they work.”
Ulrich says that members of the team come with both talent and an excellent work ethic.
“All of our players are recruited,” she says. “They might come from a AAA team or their provincial team. Our players are from Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. And Manitoba.”
“They all come with their different backgrounds and systems and they've all come from different teams. Everyone's a good player at this level, but the challenge is to make them a team.”
“Something you notice every year is skating, shooting and ability with the puck is across the board much higher. The kids just seem to be getting better every year.”
“It's really exciting and inspiring,” she adds. “With our older players, it creates an internal competition-which is good because it pushes everybody to be better.”
“At the end of the day, our goal as a team is to be national champions- that doesn't change.”
“For me personally, I'm thankful I came from a family-including my extended family- and a community where everyone is super-supportive and excited for me.”