Absence makes the heart grow fonder

Senior Spotlight: Natasha Kostenko

Natasha Kostenko lifts the Golden Path Trophy above her head after the Bisons captured the national championship in London, Ont.

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Two years ago, U of M Bisons women’s hockey forward Natasha Kostenko almost left the game of hockey behind.

After tough years at Bemidji State and the University of Regina, Kostenko had fallen out of love with the game and on a whim decided to make a change.

“I was kind of having a bad day at work and the girls were like ‘Go travel, just leave,’ and I’m like ‘Okay, I’m going to do it,’” Kostenko said.

“So I booked a flight.”

Kostenko was in Perth, Australia, and 16,000 kilometres away from Winnipeg when a leisurely skate on a tiny rink brought it all back.

“It was wintertime there, not very cold,” said Kostenko.

“But they had an outdoor rink kind of set up — it’s called their Winter Carnival — and I went skating and I was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ I was so happy.

“So I knew in my heart I still did love [hockey].”

Kostenko returned home and was playing adult league hockey with her friends the very next day, even though she was jet lagged after a long flight home via Beijing, China.

The following school year, Kostenko attended the University of Manitoba and asked Bisons head coach Jon Rempel for a tryout.

Kostenko said he said “Yeah, if you can get your ass into gear and get back into shape I’ll definitely give you a tryout.”

“I wasn’t in bad shape by any means coming back. I just wasn’t in hockey shape and those are two different things,” said Kostenko with a laugh.

She made her return to the ice, earned a place on the Bisons and knew right away the ceiling was high for the team.

“I just could see how dedicated they were. I’ve never seen a team that was just so together,” said Kostenko.

Then, a year after thinking she was done with the game of hockey forever, Kostenko was a national champion, as the Bisons beat the University of Western Ontario Mustangs 2-0 in the U Sports national championship final.

Her hockey journey began when she was five years old.

“Hockey was always big in my family,” she said.

“My dad played, my uncle played, even my auntie played. My brother was playing and I guess hockey just kind of ran in the family.”

The Winnipeg-born forward took to the game immediately and following high school, was offered a scholarship and roster spot with the NCAA Division 1 Bemidji State University Beavers.

“There’s something about getting that [Division 1] scholarship […] I know I had always had my mind set on D1,” said Kostenko.

She played two years at Bemidji State before transferring to the University of Regina, where she would red shirt her first season and play the following year.

Kostenko did not have the success she wanted while playing for the Regina Cougars, so decided it was time to move on.

“It just wasn’t a good fit for me,” said Kostenko.

This was when Kostenko began the journey to rediscover her love of hockey and get on track to becoming a national champion.

She travelled the world until the moment on that little Australian hockey rink.

Although winning the Canada West Finals and a U Sports national championship were the highlights of Kostenko’s time at the U of M, it is the hockey community in Winnipeg that she said she will always remember.

“Being someone that would love to see the game of women’s hockey grow and women be able to make a living playing female hockey, just to see the support from Winnipeg when we did win the championship […] and just seeing all the support from friends, family and other students, I think that’ll stick with me longer.”

With a two-game sweep of the UBC Thunderbirds over the weekend, Kostenko and the Bisons booked their ticket back to both the Canada West finals and the U Sports National Championship.

Kostenko said she believes this year’s Bisons team can repeat the success of last year.

“I have 100 per cent faith in our team,” said Kostenko.

“We still have that awesome atmosphere in the dressing room and I just think we definitely have a shot. If we work as hard as we can — and I think we know we can — and we have the confidence and we stick together as a team, I think we’ll have a really good outcome.”