Although she spent the first few years of her life in Bamfield, about 90 km from the nearest arena in Port Alberni, Maryna MacDonald still fell in love with hockey.
Her passion for the sport eventually took her to Shawnigan Lake School, and come next fall, she will be playing for the Harvard Crimson.
MacDonald knew the sport from watching her cousin, but didn’t play until she moved to the “big city” of Port Alberni at the age of seven.
“The day we moved to our new house, even before we opened any boxes, we drove to the rink and signed up,” MacDonald recalls.
She took to the sport immediately. A few years later, when she was 15, MacDonald was skating for the female midget AAA Vancouver Island Seals. Scouts from Harvard spotted her at a tournament in Washington, D.C., and kept in touch.
“It was a hell of a roller coaster,” MacDonald laughs. “Their hockey coach saw me in D.C. and scouted me. I committed to the hockey team, and from there I had to get in. Since Grade 10, I’ve been working every day to get in. To be in now is surreal.”
It was on Jan. 12 at 4:30 p.m., during practice with the Shawnigan female prep team, that MacDonald found out she was one of 900 students to get early acceptance to one of the highest-regarded schools in North America.
“She ran into the locker room and checked her phone,” Shawnigan head coach Carly Haggard remembers. “When she came back, the whole team jumped on her.”
Admission to Harvard, MacDonald explains, isn’t based strictly on grades, but on other criteria as well.
“They want to make sure you’re doing your absolute best,” she says.
That’s no issue for MacDonald, who is playing only her Grade 12 year at Shawnigan as part of the process for reaching Harvard.
“I’ve always taken school seriously,” she points out.
No one is more familiar with the route from Port Alberni to the Ivy League than Haggard, who grew up in the same city, then left the Island for Dartmouth College in 1999.
“I understand the dedication you need to play at that level,” she acknowledges.
After four years at Dartmouth, including serving as team captain in 2002-03, Haggard went on to play for the U22 national team and professionally in the National Women’s Hockey League’s Oakville Ice and in Switzerland. She also coached three years at University of Guelph, including one season as head coach.
Haggard spent three years away from the sport in Australia before she signed on as the first head coach of Shawnigan’s female hockey program in 2016. Helping players like MacDonald achieve their dreams is exactly what Shawnigan wants to do.
“The goal of our program is that anyone who wants to play in college or the elite level, to make them ready academically and athletically,” she says.
A defender, MacDonald sits sixth in Shawnigan scoring with seven points in 13 games this year. She put up 21 points on 12 goals and nine assists with the Seals last season.
“She is an amazing hockey player,” Haggard says. “Her talent, you don’t see that very often in high school. I couldn’t be happier with what she has done for our program in such a short time.”
Beyond Harvard, where MacDonald will study engineering, MacDonald is aiming for the national team. She has played with the Team BC program, which is the first step in that direction, and last spring skated for B.C. at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships in Duncan. Hockey Canada scouts will continue to observe her at Harvard, as well.
“Obviously,” she said, “Team Canada is always the goal.”