The First Nations hockey season came to a conclusion on the ice in Saskatoon as the 2012 National Aboriginal Hockey Championship (NAHC) winners were crowned. And this year, it was the Eastern Door & North (ED&N) women’s squad that brought home the hardware, as the girls rebounded from a rough start to the tournament to knock off the hometown Team Saskatchewan in the gold medal game.

The ladies opened the tournament with a 7-1 loss at the hands of Team Alberta, but there was no looking back after that humbling experience, as the team went undefeated the rest of the way, shutting out Team Northwest Territories 9-0 and knocking off Ontario 7-2 to earn a medal round berth. In the quarter final, the girls kept rolling on, defeating Team BC 7-1, before avenging their opening game loss by eliminating Alberta in the semi-final by a score of 4-2.

That win set the stage for the gold medal showdown against Saskatchewan, a team that had gone undefeated on home ice until that point in the tourney. The gold medal game was a back and forth affair with the ED&N girls hanging on to win 3-2; and hang on they did as Saskatchewan scored what would have been the tying goal just as time expired in the third period. The goal was disallowed and the Cree, Algonquin, Innu, Inuit and Mohawk players that made up the ED&N women’s team were able to start their celebration.

An important addition to this year’s squad was behind the bench, where Wemindji’s Sara Morrison, a former ED&N player and currently a forward for the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, made her coaching debut as an assistant to Head Coach Patrice Dominique.

Unable to play because of NAHC rules that disqualify players who play at the CIS level during the regular season, Morrison moved from her familiar role as a leader in the dressing room to new territory behind the bench.

And the transition took some getting used to.

“I tried to give the girls feedback, so they could play more as a team, develop as a team,” said Morrison, who won NCAA Rookie of the Year honours while playing for Liberty University (Lynchburg, Virginia) during the 2010-2011 season.

“You can’t be best friends with your players. It was hard to not get close to the girls on a friendship level, but I needed to do it more on a coaching level, so that they would respect me. As a player, I am used to building these relationships deeply and quickly. As a coach, it takes a lot more time.”

In addition to getting comfortable in her role as Assistant Coach, Morrison also learned quickly what is involved when one of your players is your younger sister – in this case, Dana Morrison.

“We talked before the tournament,” said Morrison, when asked if coaching her sister brought any challenges. “She knew what she had to do. Dana wanted to show the girls that you have to listen to the coach and adjust your game to win.”

With her sister onside, Morrison, who has patrolled the blue line for many years, took on the task of coaching the ED&N defense players and managing the team’s defensive systems, while Head Coach Dominique took care of the forwards.

“That was a big role for me,” added Morrison. “The hardest part was making lines and pairings to provide offence and balance quickness. By the end of the second game, we had set lines that we used for the rest of the tourney, and that took us all the way to the gold.

“As a first-time coach, it was hard not to be frustrated,” said Morrison, recalling the difficulties the team faced after losing the tournament opener to Alberta. “But after beating NWT, it was a huge confidence builder for the team, and the girls took it from there.”

So now that Morrison has gotten a taste of coaching, could it become a bigger part of her hockey future?

“I plan on it doing it for the next couple years at the NAHC. I would like to be a head coach for this team. But, right now I am focusing more on school,” explained Morrison. “I think I could pick it up later though. I would like to give back the way my parents always gave to me.”

While there are many people involved in First Nations hockey that are concerned about where the next generation of coaches will come from, the young women who hope to play for ED&N in future NAHC tournaments don’t appear to have anything worry about.