Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – Going 12 weeks between games after an injury forced her to the sidelines, Jill MacWilliam returned to the ice for the MacEwan Griffins late last month with a fair amount of trepidation.
"I think I was more nervous for that game than I was for the home opener," said the third-year forward from Hay Lakes, Alta. who played on Jan. 25 against SAIT for the first time since Nov. 2. "I was scared to see how it was going to go, I was scared to get injured again. It was just like a mixture of nerves and over-excitement.
"I stepped on the ice and I felt like I hadn't played in five years – basically had to relearn everything."
By last weekend, though, when the Griffins faced NAIT, she was showing signs of getting back to the gritty, lay-it-on-the-line game that MacEwan has sorely missed in her absence.
"She's probably the best shot blocker in the ACAC, so we've missed her immensely on the penalty kill," said Griffins head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "She came back in last weekend and blocked one shot with her hand and another off her shoulder.
"I think that's the best aspect of Jill's game. Sure, she adds speed to our lineup and a little bit of offensive flair, but it's that gritty side of her game that I think we missed most."
The feeling was mutual. MacWilliam missed game action terribly during the injury layoff.
"Honestly, it's super hard," she said. "Mostly, I just focused on school and it showed at the end of the semester, which was pretty nice. But you just feel so disconnected from the team. You're not on the ice, so that's hard on you.
"It was almost worse being there because it's just a reminder that you don't get to step on the ice and you don't get to play."
Now, however, she feels she's starting to get back up top speed and it couldn't come at a better time for the Griffins, who head into their final few games of the regular season this weekend against Red Deer College.
The Griffins enter the weekend after getting swept by NAIT – albeit picking up a point in a shootout loss last Saturday – and are unlikely to improve their lot on second place in the standings.
"Definitely this weekend's going to be pretty big for us to turn that around after getting swept," said MacWilliam. "I think first place is gone now, but definitely if we win over Red Deer by one or two goals, that will maybe open up the floodgates for us and build up our confidence.
"We can score. We have a lot of offensive ability and good girls on our team that can put the puck in the net, but I think it's just getting those gates open and building the confidence up."
MacWilliam, who has a goal and eight points in 12 games so far this season – seven of those points coming in nine first semester contests – is aiming to be a part of the solution on the offensive end.
"I feel like I'm not very consistent in my offensive abilities," she said. "Sometimes I'm really on, sometimes I'm off.
"Definitely coming back, it's been hard to get back into (a scoring role) and there's been a lot of expectation coming back after my first half was pretty good. That's been tough, but I think this week and last weekend's games was just getting back into it. Hopefully we can start putting some pucks in the net."
It's helped that she's been reunited with Chantal Ricker on a line. Although the duo were previously fierce rivals in their youth playing on opposing Alberta Female Hockey League teams, they became fast friends when they first came to MacEwan in 2016 and were put together as roommates.
"Definitely when we moved in together, I thought this is going to be awful, I don't want to live with you," recalled MacWilliam. "But honestly as things have gone on, she's like my best friend now. It was just funny how we hated each other and now we're best friends. I trust her with anything. On and off the ice, we just get along all the time."
Just having MacWilliam back on the ice has provided a lift to the Griffins. She plays the crease-crashing style of game that head coach Lindsay McAlpine is looking for.
"It's something that we're looking for continuously is that gritty style and a net-front presence – things that have formed the Griffins identity over the last few years," she said. "Jill exemplifies that."
And she leads by example for the rest of the team.
"It's something that we talk about all the time," said McAlpine. "It speaks to our identity. It gets our bench going.
"We get as excited by a big shot block as our team does when we score a goal. Those are things we constantly talk about in practices and in between periods. Jill gets out there without hesitation and steps in front of the hardest shots in our league."