Rollie and the Rockets
Joan Thorneycroft’s final acts of generosity left a hockey legacy, WAYNE SCANLAN writes
Joan Thorneycroft with some of the Goulbourn girls who benefitted from her contributions to the team. (Thorneycroft family)
On the occasion of her 80th birthday last year, Stittsville’s Joan Thorneycroft was particular about getting the right gift.
Not for herself. For someone else.
Once a hockey player herself growing up near Sherbrooke, Quebec, Joan wanted to help just one girl play organized hockey, a girl who might otherwise not be able to afford the equipment and registration costs.
In the end, through the creative synergies of her daughter, Diana, and women’s hockey builder Cathy Bureau of Stittsville, Joan Thorneycroft didn’t help one girl — she helped dozens of girls play local hockey in the upstart Goulbourn Girls Hockey Association (GGHA), now into its second season of action at an arena near you.
For the past two years, the Thorneycrofts sacrificed Christmas gifts to each other, planning instead to direct the money towards a girls hockey program. On the day she turned 80, even as Joan still wondered where her theoretical donation might go, Diana surprised her mother with an oversized cardboard cheque for $5,000 in Joan’s honour, made out to the GGHA. Bureau was there to receive it. Joan was thrilled to sign off on the deal.
Here was serendipity at work. Bureau, a former NCAA player at Clarkson University and the mother of three daughters, had been looking for a way to start a local league for girls. Joan wanted to help a girl play and Diana helped Joan and Cathy bring their ideas together. Both daughters of military men, Diana and Cathy were kindred spirits.
Until that September day in 2011, girls from the Stittsville area had to drive to Kanata or Nepean even to play house league hockey.
Not any more. Joan’s seed money helped buy jerseys, socks and contributed to the cost of ice. Sadly, following years of ill health, Joan Thorneycroft passed away a few weeks ago, but not before realizing her dream of leaving behind a lasting hockey gift. On numerous occasions she was able to meet the fresh-faced girls in their new powder blue — reversible! -- Goulbourn Rockets uniforms.
And how perfect was that, the “Goulbourn Rockets.” Joan’s maiden name was Rowland, and she often went by “Rollie.” On the outdoor ice, and as a superior player for her school teams in East Angus, Quebec, Joan became “Rollie the Rocket.” Now, the girls keep the Rocket name alive every time they step on the ice.
The joy Joan experienced in her final 13 months brings tears to the eyes of those who tell of it.
“You’ll have me bawling,” Joan’s husband, Ken, says over the phone, still grieving the loss of his wife after 59 years of marriage. “It gave her a new life, seeing the girls play. This is her legacy. It’s wonderful. She came home from watching their practices giggling and laughing like a teenager.”
Just weeks ago, in mid-September, Joan attended a Goulbourn ‘Fun Day,’ and called the girls over to her as she ventured out on the ice, Ken pushing her wheelchair. She opened up an envelope, took out a cheque and waved it in the air. It was her second $5,000 contribution to the Goulbourn girls program, and she wanted the players to see it with their own eyes.
In salute to their benefactor, they banged their sticks on the ice. Joan beamed. Days after her 81st birthday, watching the Goulbourn program soar, she could not have been happier.
About a week later, Joan was admitted to hospital (Queensway Carleton). For more than four years, she had been battling COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). It had weakened her heart and made breathing difficult — “she was on oxygen 24/7,” Ken says. Now, even her ever-present oxygen tank wasn’t enough. On Sept. 30, Joan died.
“She has a team in heaven now,” Ken says.
During a packed service at St. Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church in Stittsville, Cathy Bureau and her Goulbourn Girls were introduced by Diana to a rousing ovation by the congregation. Sitting in church pews, chills running up their backs, grown-ups had smiles on their wet faces, knowing what that girls program had meant to Joan.
“I had tears in my eyes,” says Kirk Pashak, a former coach of AA competitive boys who helped Cathy instruct the girls last season — a full year of practice sessions. No games.
Bureau and Ken both believe the girls hockey program extended Joan’s life by at least a year. When Joan lost her fight with COPD, she left knowing her legacy was in good hands.
Meanwhile, her gift keeps on giving. In lieu of flowers, the Thorneycroft family asked that donations be made to the Goulbourn girls league.
“To date, we’ve received 50 cheques from people across Canada,” Bureau says. “It’s been overwhelming.”
The total value of those donations so far? What else, another $5,000.
The seeds of Joan’s startup cheque continue to blossom. What was one practice squad last season has become three busy teams: Atom, novice and an IP (initiation program) group. The atom and novice teams play in the rural ODWHA (Ottawa District Women’s Hockey Association) against teams like Kemptville, Brockville, Perth, Rockland and Clarence.
Goulbourn might be a local program, but any parent of a female player will tell you: Have girl, will travel. Girls who want to play hockey are on the move.
“The progress is amazing,” says Ken Thorneycroft. “Some of these girls could hardly stand on their skates last year. This year they’ve grown a foot taller and they’re skating beautifully.”
Winning is overrated, say those who have seen the Rockets play. Pashak says that after the atom team lost its first game of the season by 10 or 11-0, and then game two by 8-0, they were ecstatic to lose only 5-0 in their third game.
“They came off the ice like they’d won the Stanley Cup,” Pashak says. “We only gave up five goals!”
Recently, the team registered a 2-2 tie. The team manager snapped a picture of the scoresheet as a keepsake.
Bureau already has hockey pioneer credentials. One of the first Canadian women to play NCAA hockey, at Clarkson University, Cathy grew up in Nepean and her father, Frank Champion-Demers, helped found a girls hockey program in Nepean in the 1970s. A former president of the ODWHA, Bureau expects the region to get another huge boost when Ottawa plays host to the Women’s World Hockey Championships next spring for a second time.
Bureau talks about the “little steps” her league continues to take, thanks to the initial Rocket-boost from Joan. In time, she would like to see the league develop a team for all age groups, and include a competitive component, but for now the girls and their families are thrilled to be playing house league hockey without having to drive to Kanata all the time.
“I don’t want to lose the development aspect, too many associations are too focused on competitive,” Bureau says. “I want that balance, so kids can still develop, have fun and get lots of good experiences.
“There’s so much pressure on them (in competitive). They’re on the ice four or five times a week,” she says. “Dryland, this, this, this. They don’t have a life. I’m trying to show kids you can still be a good athlete, with more of a balance.”
Not all is perfect with the Rockets. Despite the additional pad of ice at the Goulbourn Rec Complex, and the old Stittsville Arena, the new girls association has been scrambling to find enough practice ice, having been allotted just two hours per week from the City of Ottawa for games and practices. Pashak’s main GGHA task is to constantly seek ice, but not every group lets the city know they aren’t using allotted times — more established associations think nothing of “burning” practice ice, or letting it go to waste.
Bet on the ice issue getting resolved. Every other time there has been a hurdle, an answer has been found, as though resolved with angel dust from ‘Rollie the Rocket’ Joan Thorneycroft.
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