Rachel Flanagan’s love for hockey has never wavered. But 20 years ago, Flanagan was at a crossroads. It might seem strange now that the Guelph Gryphons women’s head coach of the past 12 years almost walked away from the program as a rookie. While Flanagan’s passion for the game was unquestioned, she was struggling in her first year as a Gryphon, wondering where she fit in on her team. Communication with the coaching staff seemed difficult and Flanagan gave serious thought to quitting hockey and trying out for the soccer team, one of the many sports she excelled at as a young athlete.
But a new staff came in, led by head coach Dave DeBurger. Flanagan found her stride again – and also learned a lesson that would become a core component of her coaching philosophy.
“It was a frustrating year, I never knew where I was at,” Flanagan recalls of her initial experience on the U of G campus. “As a coach, that’s one of the best experiences I could have had because I can say, ‘I’ve been there.’ I was that player. They can come to see me when they have questions or I can communicate with them clearly about where they’re at, why they’re there, and what they can do to change it. I didn’t have that in my first year – and I nearly quit.
“Your coach can make or break your experience.”
It’s a lesson that resonated. Flanagan went on to play five years with the Gryphons women’s team, including two as a captain before graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Human Kinetics and a Bachelor of Education from Lakehead University. The former Gryphon would eventually get her chance behind the bench and the program has evolved to what it is today, one of the most respected teams in the OUA and U SPORTS.
The outcome, however, could have been decidedly different.
Flanagan first fell in love with the game in her hometown of Pontypool, ON, a small village in between Oshawa and Peterbrough. The daughter of British immigrant parents, she and her older brother Matthew became active in sports. Flanagan started with figure skating but quickly found that she wanted to follow in Matthew’s path and play hockey.
“That was a bit of a shock to my parents,” said Flanagan. “Coming to Canada, they knew hockey was important but putting their little girl in the game was different.”
The sport had no semblance of its current structure for girls back then. Flanagan played soccer in the summers and then shifted to hockey in the fall and winter, as one of three girls playing at the local Manvers rink. She was a good, competitive athlete, who played multiple sports so as she got better, she had to move around to find teams. Flanagan played bantam in Peterborough and then as senior women’s hockey was starting to become more prominent, she joined a team within the same city.
Playing with women more than twice her age was a challenge – but it did toughen her up.
“When I got there, I distinctly remember thinking that I knew a lot about the game of hockey as 15-year-old,” Flanagan said. “I had a coach who was the best coach I ever had and he basically changed my opinion of how much there was to know about hockey.”
That was Jim Mercer, one of many people Flanagan still sees from her senior days.
She was eventually accepted as a student at the University of Guelph and tried out for the Gryphon team. Flanagan wasn’t necessarily the most skilled player on the roster but she put in the effort and said that she was lucky enough to play with some good talent, like Laura Church and Kerri-Anne Rudaniecki, who could put her passes in the net. Those linemates remain friends to this day.
Flanagan is amazed by how far the game has come since those years.
“The commitment level and what is asked of players now is so different,” she said. “We played because we liked hockey and we were pretty good at it.”
DeBurger was a coach who provided the program with a much-needed motivational lift and it changed the environment for the better. Flanagan said that quality of Gryphon hockey improved even more when Chuck Wight took over for two years during her tenure as a player. Wight took the technical aspect of the game to a new level, introducing systems and asking more of his players in terms of what they could do on the ice.
That played a significant role in Flanagan’s development as a coach, which has included a two-year stint abroad in the Division 1 English Premier League. At the age of 27, she took over the Gryphons’ program and despite lacking substantial experience, Flanagan knew what was required for the team to take the next step. She relied on her organizational skills and attention to detail, while having a vision for the program.
“For the first few years, our teams were good and we were getting better but the teams that were winning had the best players,” said Flanagan. “It’s gotten to a point now that yes there are teams with good players but they don’t always win.
“When I’m recruiting, I’m looking for character people. I want skilled players, who have character but you can’t sacrifice character to have great players. I’ve done it and it doesn’t work. If you look across our league, there are some very skilled teams who struggle when they need to compete as a group. That’s the biggest challenge as a coach, is getting your team to compete for each other and for the right reasons.
“The idea of playing for something bigger than yourself makes you a better leader. It makes you confident.”
Flanagan, who is also completing a Masters in leadership at the U of G, said that one of the most rewarding aspects of the job is when players return for their third of fourth years and the switch goes on. They have their best summer of training and do it not because they want to be in better shape but because they want to do it for the team. Flanagan never tires of seeing that maturation.
Guelph’s current captain Kaitlin Lowy is clear about how her coach’s approach has helped both her development and the team’s. As soon as Lowy met Flanagan, she wanted to be part of the Gryphon program.
“I knew she was going to challenge me and make me better,” said Lowy. “Her devotion and passion for our team is infectious, which makes coming to the rink every day a pleasure.
“Rachel is always approachable and open to conversation. That has allowed me to grow immensely as a hockey player. Rachel has built a program that not only produces fantastic athletes but also creates strong, independent women, who are equipped with all the life skills for future success. Rachel has been a great mentor and role model to me over my years as a Gryphon and I am tremendously grateful to have her as a coach.”
Assistant coach Katie Mora has played for Flanagan and the former Gryphon captain is now learning what it takes to lead from behind the bench as opposed to on the ice. She said that there is trust and respect between the two women, who share a common bond and that the environment that Flanagan has fostered helps empower both the players and the staff.
“Rachel’s dedication and passion towards her team is what sets her apart,” said Mora, who has spent the past eight years with Flanagan, including five as a player and three as an assistant coach. “The emphasis she puts on being a good teammate and holding yourself accountable will always be something I value. During my time as her player, I always knew she had the best interest of the team in mind and that she was committed to our development. This development did not only occur as athletes, but also as people. She forced us to communicate, even when conversations were going to be difficult.
“She demanded our best efforts in everything we did, which challenged us to be focused every day.”
Flanagan’s commitment to her players has brought tangible results. The team won back-to-back McCaw Cups in 2016 and 2017, dominating the OUA for a lengthy span. The first was a veteran squad that had been close before but never got over the hump. Flanagan learned the story of former Gryphon Judy McCaw, who after her playing days ended in the late 1960s, was killed by her boyfriend in a murder-suicide. She told her players about the tragedy and they were galvanized, realizing that the Cup belonged in Guelph. The Gryphons did play for something bigger than themselves in the 2015/16 season and they got to the summit.
Guelph repeated the following year, perhaps unexpectedly, with a young, talented team. Flanagan received the OUA Women’s Coach of the Year that season. Entering her 12th year behind the bench in 2018, the team had compiled an incredible record of 209 wins, 62 losses and 15 draws. And they are off to another fantastic start with wins in six of the first eight games this season.
Flanagan has transformed a program that she has committed almost a full two decades to. But being a strong woman and role model was never the overt intention for the decorated mother of two boys (Cylus 7 and Cullen 3). Flanagan has simply done the work and set an example for those in front of her to see. She isn’t in the business of grooming star hockey players either – Flanagan is helping develop young women who will go on to do amazing things, which makes her one of the natural leaders of She’s Got Game.
“When we talk to our recruits about this initiative and about organizations wanting to hire student athletes, there is a reason why,” the coach said. “We’re celebrating those reasons. That’s what this is about for me, highlighting all the things that women do. They’re not doing it for NHL contracts or to flash their name and get their next job. They’re doing it because they love it and they’re competitive.
“It makes them stronger, better people and in my opinion, the leaders of the future.”