Sports have long provided a way for young people to get an education. Many teenagers have left their homes in Cree communities so that they can participate in their sport of choice at the highest level possible. As elite athletes, they can take advantage of Sport-Études and scholarship programs that give them the best chance at a high-quality education.

Wemindji’s Sara Morrison has turned that process on its head; leaving home at a young age to pursue school and becoming an elite-level hockey player in the process.

After studying and playing hockey last year at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she was among the league’s leading scorers and was named Rookie of the Year, 19-year-old Morrison recently transferred to University of Ottawa. In addition to studying Human Kinetics, Morrison is a physical force on the university’s Women’s Hockey team, competing against some of the best female players in Canada. But it was not hockey that motivated her parents to send Morrison to school in places like North Bay, Sudbury and Ottawa. It has always been about providing their daughter with the education she needs to be successful.

“I moved from Wemindji because of school,” said Morrison, who took time to speak with the Nation in between a morning hockey practice and afternoon classes. “My parents always emphasized ‘school first’. It will be beneficial for me and the community back home. But I like school, and hockey just kind of happened at the same time.”

Like most kids, Morrison was introduced to hockey at a very young age. She learned how to skate at 3, and started playing hockey at 4, later joining boys’ teams in Wemindji until her move to North Bay after graduating from Grade 6.

“I moved with my dad, who was going to school to become a pilot and it was just me and him for a year,” explains Morrison. “Moving down south was big change and I was excited. I went to school in North Bay for Grades 7 and 8 and played house league the first year. That was my challenge. Every time I moved to a new city, because the hockey association didn’t know you, you were judged and put into a lower level even if you were as good as the players in A or AA.”

But hockey was not the biggest challenge Morrison faced in North Bay. In addition to challenges in the classroom and on the ice, young Morrison had to endure time away from family.

“In Grade 8, I lived with my aunt and uncle for half a year, and half a year with a teacher. Grade 8 was my hardest because I was alone. But my parents came to visit all the time.”

After Grade 8, Morrison returned to Wemindji for a year before again leaving for Sudbury. By the time she reached Grade 12, her decision about what to do next had as much to do with hockey as it did with studies.

“After Grade 12, I wasn’t thinking about university and wasn’t sure how to go about working at the university level. I came out of high school a year earlier than everyone else. So I took a year off, moved back home and worked in the Sports Academy program run by the Wemindji Recreation Department.”

The Sports Academy program uses sports to motivate kids to stay in school. Morrison’s track record, both on the ice and in the classroom, meant that she had a lot of credibility with the youngsters she worked with.

Morrison also spent that year playing hockey, captaining the Wemindji Paint Hills Midget A boys’ squad to the Coastal Championship and a second place finish at the Regionals in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, just shy of a berth in the provincial championships.

Upon making the decision to return to school, Morrison attended a hockey prospects camp in Toronto with the expectation that she would be attending University of Ottawa. But a meeting with Paul Bloomfield, coach of the Liberty University Flames hockey club, would change her mind.

“I was excited at the time. It was the States and I was on my own. I knew it would be a new experience,” explains Morrison. “But I struggled that year being that far from home. It’s a 24-hour drive and my parents didn’t get to see me play. The only time I saw them was when they dropped me off and came back at the end of the school year. But I had a lot of support from my teammates. At the end of the hockey season I decide I wanted to move closer to home. I talked to Yanick and I was worried, but he was awesome.”

Yanick is Yanick Evola, manager and coach of the Women’s Hockey program at University of Ottawa.

“I am very happy to have Sara on the team this year,” said Evola, who spent four years in the QMJHL, before attending St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia to study Human Kinetics, the same area of study that Morrison is currently enrolled in.

“She was supposed to come here last year, but she chose Liberty. I think that going there was good for her. She gained confidence, was Rookie of the Year and she was one of the top scorers in the league. I think it was good for her to understand that she can score some goals and have a big impact on the team.”

The move from Liberty to Ottawa is a big jump from a hockey perspective. University of Ottawa competes in the RSEQ conference along with Carleton, McGill, Concordia and Université de Montréal.

“We are playing in the best conference, in my book, in Canada. The RSEQ is a really strong conference. There are few players from the national team and the National Women’s Hockey League,” continued Evola. “It is a bit of an adjustment for first-year players; we do have 16 rookies this year. And Sara has been pretty good at adjusting her play. It is a more physical game, a faster game. So far it has been a bit of an adjustment, but she is getting there. We are looking forward to seeing her on the score sheet because she has some offensive ability.”

The Human Kinetics program at Ottawa will last five years, maxing out Morrison’s eligibility to play university hockey. But already, she is thinking about what will come next for her.

“When I got to here, Yanick told me to be prepared to work hard at (Human Kinetics). Beyond school, I want to live on the reserve. But I love the city too. I want to do both. I want to be part of the community, but part of the city as well,” she said.

“When I am done Human Kinetics, I want to be a personal trainer for a while; help people, give them an opportunity to get fit, lose weight. They don’t have someone there in the community full time, year round. For the hockey teams, the basketball teams, or even to prepare to come south and be able to compete at a high level. And hopefully I can go on to be a physiotherapist.”

But what about hockey? Will there be a place for Morrison on the ice after school?

“I hope that I can play eventually at an international level, the Olympic level. Whatever way, I want to play hockey for as long as I can.”

Having faced a number of challenges and enjoyed some success, Morrison has developed a very simple philosophy that can be of value to other young people who leave home at a young age to pursue school or sports.

“Sometimes I have had to live with people I didn’t know. The challenge is getting comfortable with the people that you are living with, build a relationship, trust them, make them your family while your family is not with you,” says Morrison.

“My mom always taught me, ‘Don’t be shy, speak up for yourself, and always try to make friends’. But it can be a challenge. I think it starts back home at school. Start speaking out in class, start speaking out on the team. Work on the little things first. Start being more independent at home,” she said.

“And don’t depend on your parents to do this or that for you. Say, you have a form to hand in. Don’t wait until the last minute and then say, ‘Hey mom, can you hand in this form for me’. Do it yourself!”

But Morrison balances that sense of independence with an appreciation of the sacrifices and hard work that her parents have endured for her benefit.

“I have been very lucky. I thank my dad and mom for all the hours they put into coaching me. And through the hard work and frustration, I would not have had a shot without my dad.