After a heavy shift in the intensive care unit at St. Boniface Hospital, where the patient population includes those suffering from COVID-19, nurse Tess Houston likes to unwind by planning and running practice for the female U15 AA Twins hockey team.
The ice is where she is most content.
"I've definitely found a way to make it work," says the 27-year-old Winnipegger of the work and hockey balance in her life. "I've been doing hockey and school since high school.
"I went to Balmoral Hall and they prepared me for university and then going to the U of (Alberta) and studying and playing hockey and travelling definitely prepared me for my career. I mean, hockey's always been the best stress relief ever. It's my favourite sport. I love playing, love coaching, so it's very easy to unwind and dive right into hockey."
Houston graduated from the U of A in 2016 after a five-year career with the Pandas and started her career in her hometown. First, she worked as a surgical nurse before entering the ICU program in 2019.
She graduated in February of 2020, which coincided with the early days of the pandemic. Fitting in her coaching duties sometimes required switching shifts at work or deferring practice to her assistants. Her medical training also allowed her to adapt quickly to the return to play guidelines with an eye on safety.
"It was definitely a new kind of stress for sure," says Houston of the sometimes grim days at the hospital. "It's been a tough year and I'm thankful for the friendships that I have at work and outside of work and my family that have been incredible supports. So it does make it a tiny bit easier."
At the same time, while still playing senior hockey, she kickstarted her coaching career and recently put the wraps on her first year as head coach of the Twins after serving as an assistant in 2019-20.
Female coaches, many coming from elite playing backgrounds, are becoming more visible at all levels of the game after years in which male coaches were the customary, accepted leaders behind the bench.
Hockey Manitoba has not been tracking the numbers over the long term, but a growing female influence is being felt in the grassroots of the provincial hockey scene.
In 2017-18, 321 women were coaching in the province, followed by 396 in 2018-19 and 378 in 2019-20.
Numbers have not been tabulated for the most recent, pandemic-delayed season.
In 2020-21, despite roadblocks due to COVID-19 restrictions, Houston and her all-female, all-volunteer staff consisting of assistant coaches Alana Serhan, Rachel Dyck and Jessica Horton (all former U Sports players) were able to guide their team through exhibition season, high-temp outdoor and indoor practices when permitted and Zoom sessions to guide the players when they were unable to hit the ice.
"We had an all-female coaching staff this year and we were university graduates as well, so I think that was definitely a goal of mine to get more female coaches going on my coaching staff and to be good role models for these young women," says Horton.
The 5-2 Houston is not a commanding physical presence but her words carry weight in the dressing room. She immediately impressed Tara Lizotte, whose daughter plays on the Twins.
"She's very soft spoken but she's very expressive in her ways," says Lizotte, a team manager in 2020-21. "She talks directly to the girls and asks for feedback. 'What do you think about this? How do you want to be portrayed' or 'What are you looking for?' ... You know, 14, 15 an be can be a difficult age group for young females and she was really trying to get them into owning their development."
Lizotte says Houston expected accountability from her players, even when arenas were closed and workouts went online. She insisted her players remain as fit and prepared as possible should the on-ice season resume.
The team finally ended season operations earlier this month, but Houston's dedication to both her work and the team had struck a chord.
"It's having that female perspective of 'I've been there, I've done it' and 'We can do this,' and coming in and being that role model as that female coach leader," says Lizotte. "(There are) more and more coming out, which I think is fantastic. I love to see these elite females come out, whether they're running camps or whether they're getting into coaching or assistant coaching and moving themselves up. I think it's fantastic for the female generation growing up."
Houston preaches the virtues of time management to her players — good transferable skills for their academic or work life.
Horton, who serves as manager of operations for Hockey Manitoba, says her friend's ability to juggle work and hockey commitments is almost superhuman.
"She's phenomenal but she's always done this," says Horton. "I mean she played at a high level and while she was doing that she was in school. She went to the University of Alberta and she would go from working in a practicum and doing a night shift and then right to the rink."
Houston's leadership extends beyond the arena doors.
"She tells them about prioritizing things and making sure they have time for schoolwork and getting things done," says Horton. "I know that came up a lot this year with a lot of players — the time commitment wasn't the same as a regular year — but there was a lot of discussion about if they needed any support with time management, or ensuring that they prioritize everything."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.