Ash helps Bisons make history

It’s a rare thing for an athlete to not only experience their worst nightmare in a season, but also fulfill their most desired dream.
That’s what happened this past winter to Heather Ash.
Ash, originally from Fort Frances, is a goalie for the University of Manitoba Bisons women’s hockey team. But she had figured her second season with the squad was over back in mid-October when she tore cartilage in her right ankle after suffering a severe sprain.
“The doctors said it probably would’ve been better if I had broken it,” the 23-year-old Ash recalled.
“As far as me and the coaching staff were concerned, we weren’t putting anything on my coming back this season,” she added. “It was so bad that we really thought the season was going to be a write off for me.”
Worst nightmare, right? Well, that nightmare quickly faded as Ash strenuously began to rehab the ankle and was back in the lineup by mid-February.
Best dream, right? Well, not quite yet.
The Bisons were able to qualify for the CIS national championship tournament despite losing to Alberta in the Canada West finals (the tournament takes the top two teams from the six-team Canada West region).
As such, they were ranked sixth out of the six teams that made their way to McGill University in Montreal for the four-day tourney that began March 10.
“It was amazing to just get there in the first place and it was really great for the program,” said Ash.
“Nobody expected anything from us except for ourselves, and the teams that were down there didn’t give us any respect at all,” she added. “We were the underdogs, by far, but that was fine because it took all the pressure off of us.”
Their first game was against second-ranked Wilfred Laurier and resulted in a 6-0 loss that featured more jitters by the Bisons than poise. Ash, who faced 31 shots before being replaced by back-up Dana Hoogsten late in the game, said the loss was almost expected.
“Laurier [which eventually beat Alberta to claim the gold medal] was a very good team, and I think our team was nervous and didn’t know what to expect, and we weren’t ready to play,” she reasoned.
And who wouldn’t be? After all, this was the first time in the team’s eight-year history that the Bisons had advanced to the national championship.
But they looked like seasoned veterans in their next contest against the third-ranked Concordia Stingers, which they won 1-0.
“Everyone just settled down a bit and realized what we had to do and why we were there, and we really weren’t out of our league,” said Ash, who made 24 saves as the Bisons earned their first-ever win at the national tournament.
“I really had to pull for my team a lot,” she added. “I knew they were there giving 100 percent and that just motivated me to do the same.”
The win gave the Bisons a berth in the bronze-medal game against the host McGill Martlets. And Ash once again was able to make Bison history—stopping 28 shots to help her team to a 3-1 win and give the program its first-ever medal at the tournament.
First-ever win and first-ever medal—not bad for someone who had missed almost the whole season due to injury.
“We had great goaltending when I was away, but there were lots of players that were pumped that I was coming back and that was a big motivation for me,” said Ash.
But she added one of the main reasons for their success was the decision to hire the program’s first-ever full-time coach in Jon Rempel.
“We did this for him and for those players that were leaving,” she added. “Because the team was so close, we didn’t want to let anybody down.
“Our group this year was so tight and everyone drew off what everyone else was doing,” she noted. “If there were a couple of people that were down, the rest of the team would pick them up.
It’s been a long journey for Ash, who also helps coach the Southeast Ice junior women’s (under 21) team besides being a full-time student taking exercise and sport.
In fact, after her playing career comes to a close, Ash hopes to jump into coaching at the university level some day.
Being drawn to the game at a young age by her cousins and friends, Ash asked what most Canadian children ask their parents: “Can I play hockey?”
“I kind of had to work on my parents so they could let me play and they let me,” she noted.
And Ash got good in a hurry. By the time she was 16, she was faced with a decision—would she stay in Fort Frances or move to Thunder Bay and play for the Thunder Bay Queens Midget ‘AA’ team to really test her abilities as a goalie?
“I guess from our standpoint, we knew she was totally dedicated to it when she moved to Thunder Bay,” said her dad, Jim, who lives in Fort Frances with his wife, Dawn.
“She is very dedicated and very focused in everything she does, whether it be her schooling or in hockey,” he added.
“I just have a passion for the game and would go anywhere for it,” said Heather Ash. “They [my parents] were on board with me because it was something they knew that I wanted to do, and they’ve always supported me.”
But things weren’t champagne wishes and caviar dreams at the start, though, as the expected feelings of loneliness was felt.
“The decision for me to go was simple, but when I was there, there were lots of hard times and I was so lonely in that first year,” she noted. “But when I went back the second year, it was a totally different story because I knew people.”
From there, Ash went on to the Division III university hockey program in Superior, Wis., but transferred after her first year to Winnipeg.
In that first year with the Bisons, where she went 4-7-1 and had a 3.87 goals against average (this year she was 2-3-1 with a 2.68 GAA), Ash experienced her welcome-to-hockey moment.
“It was against UBC [University of British Columbia] and it was only a one-goal game,” she recalled.
“There were around two minutes left and we got a penalty. They [then] pulled their goalie, so it was six-on-four and we ended up winning,” she added. “I remember looking at the clock [before the power play] and saying, ‘This is why I play.’”
But Ash is not done with the Bisons. She still has a couple of more years left and the team is not satisfied with a bronze medal because they feel there is still more history to be made.
“The program isn’t done growing and there is nowhere to go but up,” Ash enthused.