Like most hockey players, Sarah Hilworth never really planned on coaching.
The fact that she was hired this past June to lead the revived Varsity Reds women’s hockey team speaks more to her knowledge and passion for the game than to any childhood dreams. In fact, if not for a career ending injury in her final season of eligibility, Hilworth may have never discovered her love of coaching.
Hilworth’s first foray into the world of collegiate hockey came not as a coach, but as a player. In 2008, the Vancouver, B.C. native was offered a scholarship to play for the University of Alberta Pandas—the same year UNB made the controversial decision to cut its varsity women’s hockey team.
In just her second season with the team, she established herself as one of its top forwards en-route to a national championship. She continued to be a vital member for the next several seasons while serving as captain, posting a total of exactly 100 points in 100 career games.
Unfortunately, Hilworth’s playing career came to a premature end when she blew out her knee while blocking a shot early in the 2012-13 season. Not happy to simply sit back and be a bystander, she began looking for alternative ways to help her teammates.
“I was trying to figure out how I was going to be a captain still, so I started to be almost a player-coach, trying to lend help to players and kind of give them my perspective on how they were playing and things they could do, in-game adjustments,” said Hilworth.
“Even when I could get back on skates—immediately I was trying to skate around even though it was pretty busted up still—just trying to do different skill work with players.”
Once she came to the realization that her playing days were over, she began looking for her next challenge. She was able to find it working and learning as an assistant coach under University of Alberta head coach Howie Draper. Hilworth says she was quickly bitten by the coaching bug.
“Just seeing those girls have success—and I know that feeling of what it means to win, and how much effort and how much time it takes—it made me want to coach and give them a platform for them to experience that.”
It was during this two-year stint as assistant coach that she gained an even deeper understanding of the game than she ever had as player.
“[Draper] kind of took me under his wing, and he really opened my eyes to the game and how much more there is to it than just strapping on a pair of skates. I was really lucky to learn from the best.”
In 2015, Hilworth took on another new challenge—this time as head coach of the Olds College Broncos, where she would be tasked with building a new team from scratch.
“They’re a small college—about 2000 people—and [Olds] is mainly agricultural, so it was definitely a challenge to recruit at some times,” she said.
Despite those inherent difficulties, Hilworth does not sound like someone who would trade even a second of her experiences at Olds, saying, “It was amazing—the people that I met, the network that I started to gain. It really started to open my eyes to what I like as a coach and what I see to be important.”
Additionally, this experience gave her the confidence to pursue another massive challenge, one that would see her move across the country to build UNB’s returning women’s varsity team.
“[Once] I got here for my on-campus interview, I fell in love with it; it was a no-brainer for me. It was the right time, right place and right culture for me,” said Hilworth. “Coming in, you’re not quite sure of the climate you’re walking into—and it has been unbelievable.”
Now that Hilworth is settling into the UNB community, she knows there is much work to be done. She has already recruited several players for the team’s return in the 2018-19 season and knows coaching a team made up of rookies will be a difficult task.
“Our age might come into effect a couple of times, just being so young,” she said, adding, “It’s just teaching them about the game within the game … We’ve just got to get them to play smart hockey right off the bat.”
However, Hilworth says both she and the players are up for the challenge.
“I like being the underdog; I think there’s something special to that, and all the players that have committed so far love that we can come [without] expectations but we can embrace the moment every single night.”
As for specific goals for the team’s first season, Hilworth says she wants the team to maintain a good goals-against average, a good record on home ice and ultimately a playoff spot.
“We want to establish ourselves as a contender right away.”
In the meantime, Hilworth’s focus remains on building the roster and team culture—just as she did in Olds.
“Coming over and taking a program from the start, you get to make the decisions. We get to make the culture and there is no one to blame but me, so hopefully we can do it right.”
Although Hilworth’s focus remains on the future, she still takes time to reflect on and appreciate the winding road that has led her to what she feels is the perfect place for her.
“It’s been a long journey of lots of injuries—lots of ups and downs during my playing career—and I think it has all made sense now looking back. Everything that I’ve taken from coaches I’ve had in the past and I’m really grateful for where I grew up and where I am now … But I’m still young enough to keep going.”