Ryerson’s Lisa Haley leads hockey hopes of Hungarian women

Unable to coach the Ryerson Rams to a national women’s university hockey title because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa Haley has applied her talents to an up-and-coming country.

Hungary, which won promotion to the top-tier women’s world hockey championship for the first time, has hired Haley as head coach.

If the 2021 championship goes ahead in Halifax and Truro, N.S. in April, Haley will stand behind Hungary’s bench in her home province.

“We’re in Pool B in Truro literally 20 minutes from where I grew up as a kid and started to play the game,” Haley told The Canadian Press.

The 47-year-old from Westville, N.S., was Canada’s assistant coach at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, where captain Marie-Philip Poulin scored the overtime winner for the gold medal.

Haley was also an assistant the last time Canada won a world title in 2012.

She’s coached university women’s hockey for over 20 years, first with the Saint Mary’s Huskies in the Atlantic University Sport conference and then the Rams for the last decade.

Haley is currently in quarantine at home in Cobourg, Ont., after returning Sunday from Budapest.

The Hungarian women were scheduled to play in a Six Nations tournament against China, Norway, Denmark, Slovakia and Austria last week.

All countries withdrew because of rising infection numbers in Europe. The Hungarian women ended up playing games against a local under-16 boys team.

“Yes, it’s in the middle of a pandemic,” Haley said. “My approach to this has been, I know how to keep myself safe. I know how to wear a mask, wash my hands and [stay] a stick-length away.”

Canadian Pat Cortina coached the Hungarian women to Division 1 victory and promotion in 2019, but didn’t continue with the program because of a contractual commitment to a German men’s team.

Potential for another Olympic Games 

Meanwhile, the 2020 women’s world championship in Nova Scotia was postponed to 2021 because of the pandemic.

Former Hungarian player Zsuzsanna Kolbenheyer chairs the International Ice Hockey Federation’s women’s committee.

She asked Canadian committee member Melody Davidson about potential coaching candidates for her country. Davidson was general manager of Canada’s 2014 Olympic team.

“Hockey’s a small world and women’s hockey even smaller,” Haley said. “I think Mel played a key role in me being comfortable taking it on.

“She really gave me some great advice in terms of where Hungary was in their development. They just needed that final push across the finish line. The timing seemed right.”

Hungary doubled up on Canadian coaches in 2020. After bringing Haley on board in July, Sean Simpson signed a two-year contract in September to coach the men’s team.

Haley’s contract extends to an Olympic qualifying tournament in November.

“What a thrill it would be if I had that opportunity to go to another Olympic Games,” she said.

Hungary’s lone top-tier national team

The women are also Hungary’s lone national team qualifying for a top-tier world championship in 2021.

“I know I have the stage right now because we are the only national team in Hungary in the top division, so no pressure,” Haley said.

“The Hungarian program is very focused on developing within. They want Hungarians to represent them.

“It’s a small country with a population of less than 10 million and hockey is not a popular sport. But they’re determined to swing with the big boys.”

U Sports cancelled national championships and the OUA all conference championships and schedules in 2020-21 because of the pandemic.

The Rams at best will play exhibition games starting in January.

Haley’s assistants Haley Irwin, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, and veteran women’s coach Ken Dufton handle the Rams during her Hungarian stints.

While the pandemic may have opened a window of opportunity for Haley in Hungary, it works against her and the Rams at a time when they’re ripe for a U Sports title.

“Everybody’s recruiting kind of goes in cycles and we are at the peak right now,” Haley said. “The majority of our team are third, fourth, fifth year players.

“This current season and potentially next season are kind of our best kick at the can within a five-year window.”

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