The COVID-19 pandemic changed Kayla Munro’s post-secondary plans, but the goaltender landed on her skates at Simon Fraser University and made a little history in the process
The past two years have been anything but normal for Kayla Munro. As with many athletes, the young goalkeeper’s daily life has been rocked by the global pandemic as seasons have been canceled and restrictions imposed. The challenge of finding ways to play hockey became difficult.
For Munro, her journey of continuing to play ice hockey has led her to the unique path of joining the Simon Fraser University (SFU) men’s ice hockey team. The result was a talented young hockey player who was able to continue his sport while breaking barriers.
“I didn’t know if I would ever play hockey again,” says Munro. “I’m grateful to be on the SFU team right now.”
SFU and Munro had a fantastic 2021-22 British Columbia Intercollegiate Hockey League (BCIHL) regular season, going undefeated with a perfect 12-0-0 record. For Munro, she made history throughout the season. She first put her name in the BCIHL history books on September 25, 2021 as the first woman to ever play in a league preseason game when she entered the third period to take the net against the Okanagan Lakers. She had a solid performance, stopping 13 of 14 shots in the frame. Munro next made her mark on October 16, 2021 when she became the first woman to start a BCIHL exhibition game, also against the Lakers.
“I was a bit nervous,” Munro says of her first game action. “Honestly, I didn’t think of it as a big milestone. I was nervous because I hadn’t played a game in about two years. Last year in Syracuse and the year before that, I had shoulder surgery. I spoke to a sports psychologist and learned some really good ways to take control of my nerves and make them a driving force in how well I play. Although I was a little nervous, I felt prepared.”
Munro’s biggest accomplishment to date came on February 5, 2022, when she became the first woman ever to play in a BCIHL regular-season game. The 19-year-old won for the third time against the Okanagan Lakers as SFU ran to an 8-5 win.
Munro wasn’t originally planned to rewrite history as a member of the SFU men’s ice hockey team, in fact it was far from it. Her goal was to play NCAA hockey, and it seemed like she had achieved that high when she entered Syracuse University in New York on a hockey scholarship in 2019.
“Honestly, getting the scholarship to Syracuse was a dream come true,” says the North Vancouver, BC-based product. “It’s been my goal to play in the NCAA since I started playing hockey. In my opinion, next to the Olympics, it’s one of the highest levels you can reach in women’s hockey.”
However, as the world locked down and the sport changed, so did Munro’s plans as she decided to stay at home with family and not play south of the border. The decision was not easy, but it met with support and understanding.
“I was in Syracuse for about a month in 2020,” says Munro. “We couldn’t practice or do anything; We were just stuck in our apartments. For family reasons I have decided to return home. Originally it was only for one semester, but then I decided to just stay at home. [Syracuse head coach Paul
Flanagan] was supportive. He’s an amazing guy. He wants what is best for you and he has told me he wants what makes me happy and what is best for my sanity.”
When Munro decided to stay at home in British Columbia, she had to look for a university to continue her studies. She was also hoping to find a place to play hockey, a difficult task given all the pandemic-related restrictions.
“I applied to Simon Fraser University and was accepted,” says Munro.
With her school plans secured, she began looking at hockey options.
“I started looking at everything. Even if they had an internal team or a home league, I just wanted to keep playing.
“I found out that SFU had a men’s ice hockey team and sent an email [head coach Mark
Coletta] ask if I could try it. I told him a little bit about myself, the teams I’ve played on and the level I’ve reached in hockey. He immediately gave me a lot of support.”
“Kayla needed a place to play,” says Coletta. “I let her know she’d like to come try it and if you’re good enough to play, you will play. Given her predicament, we wanted to give her a chance.”
The tryout for Munro was successful and after a training camp she was included in the 2021-22 squad for SFU.
“She can play hockey,” adds Coletta. “She is technically very good between the tubes, she moves very well. So it is important that she adapts well.”
Coletta was well aware that Munro came into his roster because of her game. He considers her a hockey player, without specifying her gender.
“Kayla is a great person,” he says. “She’s proven every day that she’s ready to work and play.”
Not being treated differently is what Munro really appreciated about Coletta.
“He believes that the best players should be in this team,” says the goalkeeper. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a man. When we first spoke on the phone he said I was just an equal hockey player, nothing more nothing less. I found it very rewarding and empowering, and I felt really good.”
Munro has had many positive influences over the years that have helped her as a player and as a person. While with the North Shore Avalanche of the North Shore Female Ice Hockey Association, Munro was first introduced to Jeff Eaton.
“I have two coaches who have stayed with me,” says Munro. “(Eaton) has been coaching a lot with the North Shore Avalanche, coming out and showing ability with us. Finally I was allowed to play with the for him [Pacific Steelers Junior Female
Hockey Club]. He’s just one of the most knowledgeable hockey people I know and so supportive. Coach Eaton just wants us to be successful, and he was the main reason I got my scholarship to Syracuse. I learned a lot of really good things from him.
“The other coach was Delaney Collins. She trained me on the [U18 AAA]
Fraser Valley Rush my first year with the team.”
A fixture on the Canada women’s national team defense in the 2000s, Collins converted her 95 appearances and nine gold medals with the national team into coaching. Collins brought with him an impressive coaching resume, but also left a lasting message for Munro.
“[Collins]is a strong believer in women’s empowerment,” says Munro. “That we should be seen as equals, not just in sport but in everything. I learned from her how to be a confident woman. That it’s okay to be strong and muscular, not just petite and delicate. She helped me figure out who I am as a goalkeeper and as a person. She was a really big role model for me.”
“Working with Kayla was great,” recalls Collins. “Her leadership and energy were contagious and her teammates could count on her to always keep up. As a goalie, she was extremely athletic, fast, and her puck game resembled a defender. She is fun to coach and she is a great person and a role model for young girls.”
After everything Munro has experienced over the past two years, she is aware that plans can change quickly. However, the young goalkeeper has set himself some goals for the future.
“I want to do my high school diploma,” she says. “This is very important to me. So for my future it means continuing my education and probably getting a job while hopefully playing hockey. To be honest, I’m grateful to be able to play because there was a point where I didn’t know if I would ever play hockey again.”
Munro’s time at SFU will benefit her in-game as well as help build life skills.
“It was a change for her,” says Coletta. “I think Kayla can adjust when this year is over.
“She worked hard and committed to us. She was willing to play many minutes or play the backup role. Anything to prepare for a place as first choice goalkeeper next year, whether she’s back on the women’s side or not.”
Despite it all, Munro has stayed strong despite the challenges.
“My biggest challenge over the past few years has been just staying motivated,” she says. “But I am very happy where I am today. I’m very proud.”