The year 2020 unquestionably had its downs, but for Winnipeg’s Tatiana Rafter, there were most definitely many ‘ups’ along the way. From returning home from Denmark, to taking on a new coaching position, to becoming a mother, to celebrating her 29th birthday, it has certainly been quite the chapter in what has already become a well-decorated record book.
Rafter – a former forward in both the National Women’s Hockey League and Russia’s professional women’s league – saw the conclusion of her playing career following a significant core muscle injury during the 2018-19 season while overseas. To stay involved in the game, she opted to begin coaching shortly thereafter, dipping her toes into both the amateur and professional realms.
“After coming back to Winnipeg from St. Petersburg, Russia I decided that instead of staying and recovering from my injury at home, I would accept a head coaching position with the Hvidovre Ishockey Klub of Denmark and recover there,” Rafter told Game On. “Leaving the game with a torn abdominal muscle was both physically and emotionally painful. Mentally, transitioning into coaching was therapeutic, although initially, running the practices was physically challenging.”
Calling her stint coaching within the EWHL and Danish leagues as a “transformational process”, Rafter passed on her vast experience and hockey knowledge to programs just beginning to realize their full potential.
“As opposed to spending time wallowing or feeling bad about myself, I had 20 athletes depending on me to develop and lead them,” Rafter said of her decision to begin coaching, despite her injury. “The hockey pool is much smaller in Denmark and I was involved with coaching roughly one-third of their upcoming hockey players. The responsibility of coaching these athletes shifted my perspective away from what I was going through and allowed me to create a new trajectory of what to do with my life.”
Although it didn’t pay much, the experience of coaching right off the Baltic Sea and living the Danish lifestyle provided Rafter with many memories that will last a lifetime.
“Lots of stories were shared over meals that opened my eyes to the Danish way of life, which was very different from typical North American views,” the former Isobel Cup champion reflected. “Playing or coaching through Europe and North America was incredible for learning about other cultures. I usually rode a bike to a train and then took another train to get to the rink to practice everyday. The commute to the rink took about an hour and a half, so that is where I did my practice planning. My husband actually joined me in Denmark and helped me coach the team as well.”
Returning to North America for the 2020-21 season, Rafter accepted a role as interim head coach with the MFHL’s Interlake Lightning. This position was offered as a way for Rafter to oversee and instruct two fellow assistant coaches, as she herself was pregnant with her now nearly nine-month-old son.
“COVID ended the season in November 2020, but I enjoyed being part of leading this team through 42 weeks of my pregnancy,” Rafter said. “It was a tough year in many respects for the girls; like all U-18 programs across Canada, we had some graduating players with college aspirations that needed exposure from the 2020-21 season, but never got it. This season was interesting in many ways, but I believe the circumstances made the team very close by sticking together through COVID.”
“Our assistant coaches Stacey Crawford and Taylor McCaskill were second to none and extremely dedicated,” she added. “Their growth was incredible and they had strong bonds with the players. It was great to see the development in practices coming through in the games. Systems were executed, conditioning improved and they really started to create offence. I really liked that the senior girls stepped into mentorship roles to younger players. The younger players faced adversity with resilience. It was so touching to receive a No. 20 white lightning jersey as a gift (indicative of his birth year). Just a very thoughtful group of young women, parents and staff.”
Through a difficult pregnancy, Rafter remained true to her roots. Often quick to cite a Bible verse, she says both her faith and her family have helped along the winding road of early parenthood.
“Letting go of the version of myself as a hockey player was one of the hardest but best things I’ve had to overcome,” the former University of British Columbia U-Sports star said. “I will always be grateful for the coaching opportunities in the EWHL and MFHL because they truly helped build me up during a really hard time in my life, allowing me to discover a stronger passion for coaching.”
That opportunity has since led to her hiring as an assistant coach with the Manitoba Junior Hockey Leagues’ Winnipeg Blues for the 2021-22 season. Already heavily involved with training in her own Tatiana Rafter Hockey School, Rafter will help with player development and video analysis this coming season. In doing so, she will quickly prepare herself to switch over to men’s hockey and coaching within a strong Junior ‘A’ level organization.
“I recognize that it is rare for women to work with players at this level, specifically in coaching roles, but adding the element of a female perspective to a junior hockey team is very modern and exciting,” she said. “Helping other athletes has already brought me much more happiness and fulfillment than I could have ever gotten from my own playing career. That is why I am especially eager to continue my coaching career with the Winnipeg Blues of the MJHL for the upcoming season.”
The Blues went 5-0-1 through six games of the shortened 2020-21 season, to which the team led the East Division in points percentage. Winnipeg outscored all but three MJHL clubs last season, finding the twine 30 times in six outings. Only Waywayseecappo, Swan Valley and Virden had more goals scored, despite playing in 28 total games.
Rafter and the Blues will find themselves back in a six-team East Division for the 2021-22 season. Winnipeg will see an opening night matchup with the Freeze at 8:00 PM on Friday, September 17.
“Words cannot explain how excited I am to get started with the Blues,” Rafter beamed. “I am grateful to Taras McEwan and the Winnipeg Blues organization for this opportunity. I have some nerves, but they come from a place of just wanting to put forward great work and add value. The players and staff have established a great culture and I really wanted to be part of it to grow in my own development; I can’t wait to meet the team and get to work.”