The Dalhousie University Tigers women’s hockey assistant coaches, Keifer House and Savannah Newton, are in just their second years with the team. But the pair are already handling more responsibility than even the longest-tenured assistant coaches around.
Head coach Troy Ryan is away for most of this season. As the head coach of Canada’s National Women’s Hockey Team, he’s been working with team Canada in Calgary this fall to prepare for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics in February. In the meantime, House and Newton have stepped up to keep the Tigers in pursuit of an AUS title.
“We knew in the back of our minds [Ryan being away] was a possibility and we’d have to be a little creative,” Newton said of how she first expected the coaching situation might unfold. “Keifer and I didn’t fully know what that would look like and I don’t really think Troy did either. But it’s coming together well so far, and I think Keifer and I work well as a team.”
House said Ryan’s hiatus has been a possibility for a while, due to him already being with the national program and the Olympics being on the horizon. “We never really thought too much about it until [Ryan] was formally announced as the Olympic coach,” House said.
Plenty of head coaching experience
The three coaches joined the Tigers during summer 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages. Fortunate enough to have a lot of the team together, due to low spread in Nova Scotia, the coaches and most of the players worked together throughout 2020-2021.
Although House and Newton, with Ryan providing input from a distance, are coaching regular season hockey with the team for the first time since joining, last year was important for getting accustomed to working with one another.
“This year, it’s more of a collaborative effort as opposed to one person being in charge. We have different experiences but similar backgrounds in playing and coaching,” House said. “We’re still learning how to bring everything together well, but we have good complementary skills that we bring to the table from our experiences. That’s one thing I’ve really noticed.”
He and Newton are well-versed head coaches, even though they’re assistant coaches by title at Dal. House spent 10 years at Newbridge Academy in Dartmouth, where he helped establish and run the athletic program, and coached hockey teams. He’s also operated the Top Shelf Hockey Program hockey school in Dartmouth since 2009.
Newton, after coaching the Prolympia private school team in Sweden in 2018-2019, was named head coach of Hockey Nova Scotia’s Female High Performance teams this past February. In this role, she will recruit and develop coaches for the U16 and U18 provincial teams, while also leading a professional development series for female coaches.
“I prepared for the season by taking everything in stride and taking in whatever comes our way,” Newton said. “There’s been a lot of new things come up because we haven’t worked with the program in its full capacity yet. We’ve been good problem solvers, I think is a good way to describe it. Whenever a problem comes up, we were prepared to get things going and help the team succeed.”
Time of transition for the team
Much like how the last couple of years have been a transitional period for the coaches, the same can be said for the players. Only seven players on the roster are in their third year or higher. Although the team is concentrated with new faces, many were still around to train with the new staff in the off-year.
Kennedy Whelan is one of those seven. She said the first couple months of the season with House and Newton in charge have highlighted their strengths as coaches and built confidence within the team.
“They do their best to be upfront and open with their decisions and why they’re making them. That communication really helps everyone buy in,” Whelan said.
Teammate Izzy Weist said she’s been impressed with her coaches’ skills and knowledge, which she’s come to notice more this season.
“They both bring a lot of knowledge of the game and they translate that well [to the team],” the second-year forward said. “They’ve been positive and are helping us head in the right direction.”
While Newton and House are driving the vast majority of activities this year, Ryan is still as involved as he can be. He regularly meets with the team via video chat and even more regularly with the coaching staff. Ryan watches nearly all the Tigers games and is quick to message the staff, before or after, with input. The coaches say his influence is evident.
“Troy’s the kind of guy who can manage 100 different things at once,” Newton said.
There’s a lot to take in for this squad, with new coach and player lineups coming out of the pandemic-induced break. After that year where no one knew what would come next, the coaches have been stressing the importance of the process.
“The main message I’ve been trying to deliver is to focus on the process and not getting caught up with the outcome,” House said. “It’s focusing on how we’re playing, trying to make good decisions and trying to control things we have control over, not anything we don’t have any control over.”
The process is central to Newton’s message as well.
“At the end of the day, we have to realize we’re all in the trenches together. Every day we have to come with our work boots on and prepare to improve every time we’re at the rink,” she said. “If we stick together through the process, good things will come for this team.”