WINNIPEG, MB. - Kennesha Miswaggon used to get homesick quite often. Winnipeg is a long way from Cross Lake especially when you come from a closely knit family and you’re involved in almost every sport in your tiny Northern Manitoba community.
But, like so many young women before her, missing home is just a natural response to being away at school. For Miswaggon, boarding life at Balmoral Hall combined with her love of hockey, makes time away from her family and friends a lot easier to handle.
It’s not perfect. When you’re 16-years-old, it never is. But Miswaggon is such an outstanding hockey player and playing for the Blazers in the internationally-regarded Junior Women’s Hockey League is such a tremendous opportunity, that sometimes you just have make the best of it. And at BH, that’s pretty good.
“From time to time living in boarding and being away from home does get hard,” Miswaggon said. “But it’s a lot better now. I always miss home, but my dad tells me, ‘Home will always be there.’”
Make no mistake, having the chance to play high-level international women’s hockey at an even more highly-recognized educational setting like Balmoral Hall is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but it often means leaving friends and family for long wintery stretches.
Nobody knows that better than one of Miswaggon’s coaches, Blazers assistant Regan Boulton. Not long ago, she was boarding at BH just as Kennesha is now. And for Boulton, the situation could not have been better.
“I was fortunate enough to come to Balmoral Hall and stay in boarding for my two years as a Blazer,” said Blazers assistant coach Regan Boulton. “Living in boarding with both teammates and other international students allotted me a wealth of support; which was definitely needed after moving away from my home town of Brandon at the age of 16.
“I was able to play hockey, go to school and live with some of my best friends. Boarders came to our home games with signs and noise makers and would cheer like crazy, even if they didn't fully understand the game of hockey. I loved my time in Boarding, and really felt it made a difference for when I was ready to make the bigger moves of my life; first to Quinnipiac for college, then to Austria to play professionally. Balmoral Hall is my second home, I loved this place so much it was easy to make the decision to come back and rejoin the Blazers; now as a coach and mentor.”
Boulton was a tremendous player just as Miswaggon is now. Meanwhile, acting head coach Sarah Zacharias is thrilled to have Miswaggon on the roster because she brings so much to the rink every day.
“Poised. That’s the best word I can use to describe Kennesha’s play,” said Coach Zacharias. “I’ve heard coaches say, ‘She lacks urgency,’ and I love that about her game. She is so poised under pressure. You can’t rattle her. You can’t get under her skin. You can’t get her off her game. She sees the ice incredibly well and moves beautifully. She’s the defenseman that once or twice a game, minimum, you’re watching make an end-to-end rush and she makes it look so effortless. And she finds a way to put the puck in the net at the end of it so that’s always nice.”
Miswaggon, who won a gold medal in U-16 doubles canoe at the 2017 North American Indigenous Games in Toronto, started skating when she was three and started playing hockey at age four. There weren’t girls’ teams in Cross Lake so she played with the boys until she was 13, when she went to Thompson to play for the Norman Triple A bantam girls team. At 15, she took a chance and moved to Winnipeg to board at Balmoral Hall and play for the Blazers. She’s now deciding which university hockey scholarship to accept and yet she still has this season and one more at Balmoral Hall.
“She’s getting all these calls from university teams, I think she’ll be committing by Christmas,” said Zacharias. “Kennesha’s amazing, both as a person and as hockey player. Kennesha has the same positive attitude at the rink every day, even when I’m bag-skating them at the end of practice.”
Miswaggon is also a star with Team Manitoba, the aboriginal women’s team that won a gold medal at the National Aboriginal Championship in Mississauga, Ont., last May. Although she’s only 16, the 2018 trip to the NAHC will be her third trip to the national tournament.
She’s a player who is obviously going to have to get used to being away from home, after she finishes her three years at Balmoral Hall, she’s going to spend at least four more years at university. She wants to be a nurse so it might even take a little longer depending on which school she chooses.
To encourage that home-away-from-home feeling, Balmoral Hall renovated its boarding facilities in 2014-15, now housing up to 80 boarding students from Grades 6-to-12.
A dedicated team of full- and part-time staff, including on-campus security, provide care 24/7, working closely with students to encourage participation in the boarding curriculum. For example, students complete meaningful volunteer hours each year. Balmoral Hall fosters a supportive boarding environment based on caring, connection, and community.
Expanding cultural awareness, furthering their independence, and developing a variety of healthful habits, boarding students achieve success beyond the classroom; they discover their full potential.
Miswaggon is discovering that potential now.
“School obviously comes first, but I love being on the ice,” she said. “I’m just really comfortable when I’m at the Rink. This is the place I’d be all the time, if I could. I always wanted to play in the NHL and then, when was about 10, I found out only guys get to go there. My next level, the university level, is my NHL so deciding on a university to going to be a big decision for me.”
Coach Zacharias likes to think of Miswaggon as not just a Blazer, but as “a trailblazer.”
“Kennesha is one of the first female players to come out of the Cross Lake community and potentially go on to play college hockey,” said Coach Zacharias. “What Kennesha’s done after one season with the Blazers, is go back to her community to talk about her experience playing at this unique level of hockey and I think it’s inspired some of her friends and former teammates to look at this level and now we have five or six Cross Lake females playing in prep programs across North America.
“There are a couple of them at Boston Shamrocks in the JWHL and one over at Pilot Mound so they’re getting these opportunities to leave the nest and go out on their own to play elite hockey and Kennesha is the one who went out and did the trail blazing.”
And make no mistake, having that quality boarding experience at Balmoral Hall has made the trailblazing just a little bit easier.
Scott Taylor for The Manitoba Post
Photos by Laurie Anderson
(This story originally appeared in the November issue of Game On, Manitoba’s Hockey Magazine)