By Krista Robinson
The secret behind the success of the Ryerson women's hockey team this season might have a lot to do with grapes.
Rookie Kayla Karbonik says she won't play a game without first eating a bunch of the bite-sized fruits.
When she talks about the double-overtime loss that eliminated the Rams from the playoffs last month, the right-winger unmistakably grins.
"It's hard to be upset because we did so well as a team," she says.
Ryerson's hopes of managing more than a quarter-final appearance may have vanished early on, but for the 18-year-old first-line forward, the finale was just the start of her Ontario University Athletics (OUA) career.
"We're excited to have her here [at Ryerson]," says head coach Lisa Haley. "Kayla is very tenacious, she loves to score goals and she puts herself in a position to do so."
Pronounced with the ease of alliteration over the PA system, Karbonik's name was not only mentioned, but mastered by announcers this season. Her stats hovered around the top of the Rams charts throughout the year. She finished the regular season with 17 points, including eight goals.
Defenceman and team captain Jessica Hartwick praised the hard work and smooth integration of all the new recruits this season.
"Our first-year players came in with a lot of talent," she says. "The coachability of our team has never been better — when [Haley] shows us a play, we pick it up right away."
Before this season, the Rams were never in playoff contention, and even Hartwick smirks at the thought of the team's past records.
"The posters at the [Mattamy Athletic Centre] never used to be for women's hockey," Hartwick says. "They aren't going to promote a losing team."
By the second half of the season, Karbonik was placed on the first line alongside veteran forward Melissa Wronzberg and former- NCAA player Emma Rutherford to form the best offensive line the Rams have seen in its four-year history.
"Typically the same three players do not play together all the time, but they certainly led the way as our first offensive line," says Haley. "We'll continue to switch up the lines come next season."
Whenever faced with a shootout situation in the regular season, Haley would point to Karbonik to do "her move." With a left deke too quick for most, she easily puts the puck past the goaltender on the open right side.
"I keep telling her that any good coach is going to tell their goalie what Kayla's going to do," says her dad, Ross, who watched all of the Rams games through video stream. "But it really does work often."
Late last August, the Karboniks drove 22 hours from their small town of St. Andrews, Man., to Ryerson's downtown campus. She longed for the diverse and fast-paced environment that Toronto promised, along with an Olympic coach behind the bench.
"It's tough not having her around the house," says Ross. "But as a team that's still building, we thought it was the best opportunity for her in Canada. Maybe she could build and learn with them."
Despite her impressive stats, Karbonik has faced some difficulties off the ice. First years notoriously suffer academically in their transition to post-secondary school and for her it's meant switching majors. Moving from accounting to economics next year could mean a fifth year for Karbonik, something the team certainly wouldn't mind.
As a new face in the dressing room, Karbonik also admits that it's been difficult integrating socially with some of the older players. Many of them have played together since the team's formation and the newcomer describes herself as "pretty shy."
"I'm always quiet coming into a new team and I haven't exactly opened up to everyone yet," she says. "But I get along with everyone and I'm looking forward to next season, for sure."
With training for next year already underway, Karbonik, Haley and the rest of the Rams now set their sights on improving on the team's first playoff appearance.
"We took a significant step this year and Karbonik was certainly a big part of that," said Haley. "Hopefully we make another jump next year."