When the Guelph Gryphons needed to find someone to take over the head coaching duties for their varsity women’s hockey team after longtime head coach Rachel Flanagan took a leave of absence, they didn’t have to look very far.
They just had to look to the person standing beside her on the team’s bench.
“I feel like every day it's starting to sink in a little bit more,” said 31-year-old Guelph native Katie Mora, the team’s associate coach for the past eight years. “Rachel is just such an anchor to this school, to this department, so it's been an honour learning from her for so long. And she's just on a one-year leave at this point. We still keep in contact every day, but yeah, every day it's starting to feel a little bit easier. But it's so great knowing that she' still around, just a phone call away if I have questions and things like that because she's one of the best.”
Flanagan, head coach for 16 years, asked for a year’s leave of absence last month just before the start of the regular season to take an assistant coaching job with the Toronto Torch in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League.
Mora has been coaching with the Gryphons for half of Flanagan’s time on the team bench and had been a player with the squad under Flanagan for five years before that, finishing her playing time as the team’s captain.
That means Mora has gained a lot of knowledge from Flanagan, a five-time OUA coach of the year.
“She taught me the game,” Mora said.
“I thought coming in, you know any 18-year-old coming in playing university hockey it's like you feel like you know something, but she taught me how to play the game the right way. Then learning how to play the game the right way and then just learning from her as a coach, you learn how to teach the game the right way, too.
"One of the things that she taught me that I value so much is the fact that you you're always trying to get better as a coach. The game of hockey is always evolving and she is one of the hardest-working people I know. She's accomplished so much in her career like numerous OUA championships and national championships, but she never stopped learning and I think that's one of the biggest takeaways I can take from her.”
In her five playing seasons with the Gryphons, Mora had 57 goals, 59 assists and 76 minutes in penalties in 150 regular-season and playoff games. Her university playing career came to an end with a fifth-place finish in the U Sports national championship tournament where the Gryphons won two of the three games they played and Mora had a total of two goals and two assists. She was also the team MVP that season.
Having played for the Gryphons and now coaching them is certainly special for Mora.
“Coming into my first year of university at 18 years old, if I ever thought that I'd get the opportunity to be the head coach for a year, I wouldn't have believed you,” she said. “But it's obviously such a great opportunity. And well, this community means so much to me, even being born and raised here. I feel like I've just been a Gryphon all my life so getting the opportunity to lead this team this year is, it's quite an honour and a privilege.
"And yeah, I'm excited for the opportunity.”
While it hasn’t been a decade since Mora last laced up her skates and pulled on the Gryphon jersey, the university women’s hockey has changed.
“There are a lot more skills,” she said. “The average player coming in now, just with the resources they have with skill development and things like that, they can shoot a lot harder and every year they just keep getting better. It's awesome to see the development of women's hockey in general.
“There's definitely some similarities. Sometimes they'll do things on the ice and it takes me back to my playing days, but they're definitely more skilled. The game has grown so much from when I started playing and from when Rachel played and the support for women's sport in general has grown so much. Having seen these girls being able to benefit from all the resources that they have now is awesome.”
A St. James graduate who played in the Guelph Girls’ Hockey Association and with Cambridge in the Provincial Women’s Hockey League, the original PWHL, Mora coached in the GGHA too.
She’s also coached on the international stage with the Canadian team at the World University Games, although her debut there was delayed by the pandemic.
“I guess it would have been 2020- 21 we were supposed to go to Switzerland for the world university games and then that got cancelled because of COVID,” she said. “I was supposed to be assistant coach/team lead going into those games, but then in January of 2023, I was fortunate enough to get to go.”
Those Games were held in Lake Placid and Mora was assistant coach/team lead for Canada.
“We won gold there,” she said. “I was really fortunate to be part of that staff.”
Now with a coaching staff that includes former Gryphon players Meagan Lee and Tamara Burns, Guelphite Katie Greenway and former NHL linesman and Guelph resident Scott Driscoll, Mora is hoping to guide the Gryphons to more success. And the on-ice product won’t vary much from what’s been seen during her time as an associate coach.
“It's pretty similar,” she said. “The systems we were running with Rachel under her leadership, they work, right? So I'm not here to change too much. It's more just to reiterate the points that she's already brought in so nothing's changed too much from a hockey perspective.
“A little fine-tuning, definitely little things here and there, but the concepts are the same because, you know, why fix something that's not broken.”