Character, maturity and talent shining through for Bender at Canada West level

Natalie Bender will lead the Griffins into weekend action against Mount Royal and Calgary (Joel Kingston photo).
Natalie Bender will lead the Griffins into weekend action against Mount Royal and Calgary (Joel Kingston photo).

Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics

EDMONTON – To learn about the maturity and character of MacEwan Griffins women's hockey goaltender Natalie Bender, all you need to hear is this answer.

In fact, read it aloud to your local minor hockey team.

Asked what she might have proven personally after she made 41 saves against UBC last Saturday to steal two points for the Griffins (a 3-2 win), shutting down a lineup that got provincial team placements in their youth when she didn't …

"Some people put so much weight on whether you made a team or what your stats were," she replied. "There's so many factors that go into whether you make Team Alberta or get invited to a camp, what your stats were. But I think just trust your talents and work hard.

"You don't always have to be the shining star or top of the pack. Just go out and do your thing and be a good person, be a good teammate, show up to practice and I think the rest will come. And you'll get rewarded as you go on.

"I've always said to people, no one really remembers what your stats were or how many games you played or how many games you won, they remember more so the person and teammate you were," she continued. "That's something that's more of a focus for me than anything. If I can go out and steal games for my team, that's awesome, but you've got to make a place better when you leave it."

There's no doubt Bender has done that in her time at MacEwan, not only on the ice, but off of it, too, serving as the MacEwan Student Athlete Council president and excelling in the classroom, winning the MacEwan Athletics department's 2019-20 Top Academic Award for the Faulty of Business.

She's a crucial leader in helping to set the right culture for Griffins hockey.

"It's critical in a year that not only we're starting in Canada West, but that she's in the room with 17 first-year players," said MacEwan head coach Lindsay McAlpine. "Natalie being one of them, but my leadership group as a whole, are critical pieces for us, not just for this year but the development for our team long term."

Bender and the Griffins (2-4-0-0) head into weekend home action against Mount Royal University (4-1-1-0) on Friday (7 p.m.) and vs. Calgary (3-3-0-0) on Saturday (3:15 p.m., both Downtown Community Arena, Canada West TV presented by Co-op).

Although she doesn't look at the stats, we will. Bender enters the weekend rocking a 2.42 GAA and .930 save percentage – solid numbers that don't even do her performance justice given how the Griffins have allowed 214 shots against in six games (a 35.67 average), with many of those being high danger chances.

"I talked to our goalies at the outset of the year that we need them to make those massive saves and steal us a game for us to come out with any number of wins in this Canada West league," said McAlpine.

No more tilted was the ice than last weekend when the Griffins were outshot 82-28 in a pair of games vs. UBC, often getting stuck in their own end for long stretches at a time. Bender, who played just over five periods in those two games, stopped 65 of 69 shots fired at her.

"Huge," said McAlpine. "As a coach, you cheer for Bender to do well, especially in her last year, and against goalies who were picked before her for multiple teams. For her to go in after a rocky start for our group on Friday and save everything that was thrown at her except for two great goals by UBC and then come out and steal us a game (is amazing)."

Fresh off stealing a win for the Griffins over UBC last Saturday, Natalie Bender has a .930 save percentage so far this season (Joel Kingston photo).

For the record, she wouldn't have it any other way. Bender much prefers a ton of work to some of the 10-shot evenings she used to get in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference when the Griffins dominated teams en route to three-straight championships.

"It's fun as a goalie," she said. "You want those shots. It's a lot more fun to be in a game when you get 30-plus shots than when you get 14 shots and your toes are cold.

"Honestly, it's just something you have to embrace and enjoy. You're there to play and the more action you can get the better."

And that's what life is likely to be like most nights in Canada West for a Griffins team learning the ropes in their inaugural season of what it takes to be a contender.

"I think from a mental side, you have to go in with the mindset that you really have nothing to lose," said Bender. "I think that kind of puts your mind at ease a little bit. No one comes in and expects us to win that game (against UBC).

"You have to go in and know you're the underdog and take that as your mentality. For me, that just puts my mind at ease and makes me go out there and have fun."

And when talk continues about how she stole a game against UBC, Bender is quick to point out that her teammates deserve a lot more credit than they're being given.

"Although we did get outshot, that was the best 60-minute game we've played," she said. "I think obviously the response from Friday night (a 5-0 loss) just goes to show our resilience and our ability to win those games. If we steal them, so be it. That's not a bad thing.

"I think that really proved to the girls that's what Griffins hockey is. Lindsay's always wanted the team to emulate hard work and be gritty. It doesn't always have to be pretty, but just go out there for 60 minutes and give it your best. I think everyone went out and did that.

"That was something that won us three championships and was en route to a fourth-straight championship," she added of titles the team won from 2017-19 with a 2020 championship denied even though the Griffins were leading the ACAC final 2-0 at the time of COVID shutdown.

"It's something we can build a foundation on for Canada West, as well. Nobody likes to play a gritty, hard-working team."