'My passion forever': Former CWHL player Katia-Clement Heydra takes love for game from ice to bench
A highly notable figure during a decade that not only defined, but elevated, women’s ice hockey to a new level of prominence in the city of Montreal, Katia Clement-Heydra enjoyed the opportunity to make several meaningful contributions. First excelling in U SPORTS play with the iconic McGill Martlets, and graduating with a degree in industrial relations, followed by a sterling run with the Stars/Canadiennes franchise of the Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL), Clement-Heydra was a shining star at both levels.
Belonging to a celebrated sorority that enjoyed championships with Montreal-based teams at the university and professional ranks, she hoisted the Golden Path Trophy with the McGill Martlets, and experienced the jubilation of the 2017 Clarkson Cup, where Clement-Heydra scored the opening goal. She also received the honour of the Brodrick Trophy in 2014, which marked the third straight season that a Martlets skater was named the recipient, and wore the Maple Leaf in a golden outcome at the 2013 Winter Universiade.
Enjoying her final season of professional play overseas, donning the paraphernalia of the famed Modo Hockey club in Sweden, the newest chapter of Clement-Heydra’s hockey odyssey has resulted in a return home. Taking on the mantle of coach, she has become an inspiring factor in developing the next generation of elite talent from La Belle Province.
Adding luster to such a highly prominent hockey legacy involved the opportunity to serve as a co-founder of the Women’s Hockey Institute. She has done so in collaboration with Valerie (Val) Bois, who has coached CEGEP's St. Laurent Patriotes and the CWHL's Canadiennes de Montreal, and has also served in the capacity of head coach during Montreal’s inaugural season of Professional Women's Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) play. Their unified efforts have also included strength and conditioning partner Fonctions Optimum.
With a raison d’être of benefitting female hockey players of all ages and skill levels from the province, geared towards improving their game through camps, practices and skills sessions, the institute was based at the Jane and Eric Molson Arena, home ice for the Bishop’s University Gaiters. Undoubtedly, the experience was an essential facet in her growth as a coach. Worth noting, Clement-Heydra worked with Bois in seasons past as a strength and conditioning coach for the Gaiters, who joined the RSEQ's Conference of U SPORTS hockey this fall.
“This year, we created the Women’s Hockey Institute with the development of young girls from the region in mind. We wanted to offer resources to help them develop and it’s been great," she said. "We have already seen the female game grow a lot, so I am very proud to be part of that and be able to give back to the next generation.
"I did work as a skills coach with Bishop’s," she added. "Skill development is mostly why I love coaching. Working with elite-level athletes is so engaging and stimulating as a coach. Bishop’s is building a great program and for them to give me an opportunity to work with the girls and help them develop, I am very grateful. We really saw a progression as the year went on. Unfortunately, the year was cut short due to lockdown. But I learned a lot. It is always fun to see different coaching styles and how programs do things.”
Running parallel to her efforts at Bishop’s, Clement-Heydra also took on a significant leadership role with Sherbrooke’s Harfangs de Triolet program. Having spent four seasons as an assistant coach with Le Boomerang du Cégep André-Laurendeau, she would do double-duty with Les Harfangs. Serving as head coach for both, the Under-13 (Peewee) and Under-15 (Bantam) teams, it represented a nascent experience for Clement-Heydra. Mirroring the feeling of being a rookie again, it marked a significant step forward in her coaching evolution.
In spite of the fact that the 2020-21 season was shelved due to pandemic concerns, Clement-Heydra remained an invaluable mentor to a group of skaters. Harnessing her leadership capabilities, developing organizational skills while finding ways to motivate players, her reflections on the experience is one of gratitude, admirably representing a mature outlook and a strong willingness to learn,
“I really enjoyed the challenge of being a head coach. It was my first experience and it gives you a different perspective. You basically have to build your program structure. I learned to delegate, plan, give conferences, do video sessions, etc. Our sport etude involves 15 hours a week with our athletes, so you always have to have new material, activities, and meetings," she explained,
"You have to be a leader and set an example. I wished we had played a season, because that is where you get experience bench managing matchups and learning how to adjust. But in all, it was a great coaching experience. I was lucky, I had a really good group of girls that are passionate and dedicated.”
Heading into the 2021-22 season, Clement-Heydra has already experienced a tremendous run of momentum. This autumn, she is reuniting with Bois, as they were both named to the coaching staff for the Quebec Under-18 provincial team. Additionally, she added another impressive accolade.
In the summer of 2021, Hockey Canada named its annual BFL Canada Coach of the Year Award winners. With categories for Community and High Performance, winners named for various provinces and regions, Clement-Heydra won in the Community category for Quebec. Part of a distinguished group which included a pair of other winners with U SPORTS connections, Ontario’s Rachel Flanagan, a Golden Path trophy winner with the Guelph Gryphons, along with Saskatchewan’s Brandy West-McMaster, a former scoring great for the Regina Cougars program, the sense of jubilation and achievement were its own rewards for an elated Clement-Heydra.
“Winning the BFL Canada Coach of the Year Award was a very nice surprise," she said. "It was very rewarding after all the challenges associated with COVID. We were one of the fortunate programs that practised all through the year. Being able to work with them all year and help them get better and stay motivated was a great coaching experience.
Without games, it’s hard to evaluate what you’ve accomplished. That’s why I am so thankful for this award. It is fun to know what you have been doing is good. As a coach, you are always looking for things you could do better or if you are getting through to the players. So, to get this award motivated me a lot.”
Although Clement-Heydra will not be on the Gaiters bench for their inaugural season of U SPORTS play, she will bring her acumen to a conference she once dominated. Returning to the Martlets this fall, serving on the coaching staff of new head coach, and long-time Martlets player, Alyssa Cecere, a BFL Coaching Award winner in 2020, this represents a special opportunity to bring her career full circle.
Signifying an exciting new era for the Martlets, former star players working prominently to shape the program’s future, such efforts are destined to be a labour of love for Clement-Heydra. In discussing the move from player to coach, with an already impressive list of achievements that speaks for itself, the key focus remains a sincere enjoyment of the game. While the role may have changed, the level of commitment and dedication have never wavered. As the rink remains the same focal point, a hallowed place to reach new goals and aspire towards further glories, Clement-Heydra remains a valued asset to any team she is part of.
“The best part is being able to do what I love every day and make a career out of it. I love hockey, it’s been my passion forever," she said.
"To be able to use all my experience as a player and help these girls reach their goals and progress is the best. I love it. It is also the human part. You help these girls develop as people. You help them become leaders and build confidence.”