It has been a history-making last few years as women in music, art and sport have defied expectations at every turn. Taylor Swift and Beyoncé breaking records selling out stadiums, Barbie on the big screen taking on feminism and the patriarchy, and in arenas across the country, players lacing up their skates and hitting the ice to battle it out in the first-ever women’s professional hockey league.

Organizations like the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) employ hundreds of people to ensure success on the ice, and this year, a member of the University of Guelph community is among them.

Rachel Flanagan, head coach of the Gryphons women’s hockey team, has traded her red and gold for blue and white this season, called up to serve as assistant coach of the PWHL Toronto in the league’s inaugural season.

The legacy of Gryphon women’s hockey

“I love coaching at Guelph,” Flanagan says. “I wake up with a purpose knowing what my goal is.” Still, it left the five-time OUA Coach of the Year with a desire to develop her skills, learn from other coaching styles and focus on different aspects of player development.

On the PWHL Toronto bench, Flanagan is assistant to head coach Troy Ryan. Making that kind of move is not for everyone, she acknowledges, but it’s meant an opportunity to focus solely on coaching without shouldering the responsibilities that come with being at the helm.

Since 2007 when Flanagan took over as head coach, she has led the team to U of G’s first-ever national title and three OUA titles. Under Flanagan’s tutelage, Guelph has been home to three OUA Rookies of the Year, two OUA Players of the Year, one U Sports Rookie of the Year, one U SPORTS Player of the Year, 26 conference all-stars, six U Sports All-Canadians, three U Sports tournament all-stars and two league scoring champions.

In 2021, Hockey Canada named Flanagan the BFL Female Coach of the Year and in 2022, it named her assistant coach of the women’s national development team for the third time.

So, it was no surprise that when the PWHL began to form, Toronto came calling.

PWHL makes history for women to play, coach hockey

A young girl with brown hair and bangs stands on the ice in position, dressed in red, white and black hockey gear, holding her stick and smiling at the camera.
Rachel Flanagan in her minor hockey days.

The first-ever women’s professional hockey league is a history-making endeavour and Flanagan knew she wanted to be part of it. This is a dream realized not just for the players, she says, but for all the women involved in the PWHL, from coaches to athletic trainers to therapists to the operations team.

“I played boys hockey growing up,” she says, echoing the experiences of so many young girls who play. She credits her parents who, back in 1984, pushed an organization to let their daughter on the ice. “I changed in storage rooms, in janitor’s closets, bathrooms. I did all of it.”

A former Gryphons hockey player herself, Flanagan earned a bachelor of science at U of G and went on to a bachelor of education at Lakehead University where she became involved in coaching minor hockey.

A handful of years and a stint coaching in England later, she was approached by the Gryphons to join their coaching staff, which at the time had no other women. The rest, as they say, is history.

“Every victory for any woman in hockey is a victory for women going forward,” she says, pointing out her job with PWHL Toronto created an opportunity for interim Gryphon head coach Katie Mora, who led this year’s team to the semifinals.

“The bonus of the PWHL is that more women will be coaching this game and young women will aspire to become coaches,” she says. “I wanted this dream for Katie, too.”

Meanwhile, Flanagan and PWHL Toronto continue their eight-game winning streak as they host PWHL Montréal tonight.

Much of the driving force behind Flanagan’s approach is about human development. That camaraderie and support is the heart of the culture Flanagan has built at Guelph, encouraging women not just in sport, but in leadership, creating more opportunities across the board through initiatives like She’s Got Game.

“It’s a big part of what I believe in.”


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