By Darren Lum
Sterling Nesbitt shares more than the initials and the surname with the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena.
Named for her great-grandfather Sinclair ‘Sinc’ George Nesbitt, the Highlands teen has been on an enduring journey where she applied the family work ethic, humility and focus on excellence to her academics and hockey towards earning a four-year academic scholarship and being recruited to play on the blueline for the inaugural Indiana Tech Warriors women’s hockey program, who will play in American Collegiate Hockey Association Division 1.
Excellence isn’t new for the former Red Hawks student athlete, who set a school track record in long jump for midget girls three years ago. For the past three years she has attended the athletic private high school, the Ontario Hockey Academy based in Cornwall where she will graduate from this spring.
She might have been the last defenceman to sign with the Warriors for this coming season, but will be the first Highlands student to play women’s hockey there with a four-year near-full academic (+80 per cent average) scholarship. She is still coming to terms with her achievement.
“I thought I was in a dream. It didn’t seem real to me until I finally sent my paper back, my letter of intent and got the text from my coach, saying, ‘Ok, welcome to the team,’” she said. “After that I was so ecstatic. I was so happy about it and the only thing I wanted to do was just tell everyone.”
Sterling said the Warriors wasn’t the only team interested. She had five other post-secondary options to choose from, such as New England College. The colleges represented teams in NCAA Division 3 and ACHA Division 1.
Being part of the first Warriors roster was an appealing prospect to the teen, who started her competitive hockey with the Highland Storm when she played with the boys before playing for the all-girls Bancroft Jets team.
“I can go to this school and I can make my mark in the first four years. Because it is a new program I think that getting the opportunity to be part of a team and build up their first season with a whole bunch of new girls who have never played for this team, to figure things out together is just so special to me,” she said.
Several years ago, long before any dreams of high calibre hockey, a precocious Sterling walked through the doors of the S.G. Nesbitt Memorial Arena like she owned it. Her great-grandfather was a respected Belgian horse breeder and held long standing in politics, serving as councillor and reeve in the former township of Stanhope, and on Minden council. She remembers being set straight by her father, Wyatt.
“I remember just being so young and just being so ecstatic and just being like, ‘Yeah, this is my rink. Nobody’s going to tell me what to do.’ After talking to my dad and listening to him it kind of taught me that unless you put the work in then you can’t just be like, ‘I’m so wonderful. I’m so great.’ And that fact I was taught how to be so humble at such a young age helped because I’m able to be quiet about a lot of my accomplishments,” she said.
She adds it’s important not to boast because it can not only come across as “rude,” but isn’t considerate of others such as her peers, who have haven’t been recruited by a college yet.
“People need to understand that everyone’s at their own level in their process through their life and you need to be able to respect that and help them through it instead of just making it about yourself,” she said.
Joining a new team with different people isn’t anything new for her, as it was a common trend for her the past few years when she played for three different teams in three years. This includes when she first arrived at OHA, where students come from all over the world to study and receive high-calibre hockey training with many going on to play collegiately and for their national teams.
Part of Sterling’s decision to go to play for the Warriors, who are based in Fort Wayne, Indiana included the new coach Scott Hicks. He spent the past 10 years at the Miami University in Ohio where he started the RedHawks women’s ice hockey program there in 2010. She appreciated what he had to say about how he intended to run the inaugural Warriors hockey program during a Zoom meeting with her.
“The way he was talking and had everything planned out made it feel like I knew that I could be included there as well as be able to make something at Indiana,” she said, referring to establishing standards that have never been made before.
Hicks has a track record of success, having helped lead his Miami University team to three ACHA Division 1 National Championships in 2014, 2016 and 2017. Hicks was also named ACHA National Coach of the Year in 2014 and 2018 and the Central Collegiate Women’s Hockey Association Coach of the Year honours in 2014, 2015 and 2020.
Sterling also appreciated how she connected with Hicks, who she thought was the easiest going of all the coaches she spoke with during the recruiting process. The success he had with Miami, she believes, was due in part on how he selects people of character for the program.
“I knew he had the drive to find good people. Like not even players, but just good people in general to be on his team and to have a good family base when building that team because if you don’t have that in sports … you can have the best players, but if they don’t get along it’s not going to work out,” she said.
It also comforted Sterling to know the Indiana Tech hockey team will feature a large number of Canadian players.
“If I’m going to go into a new program, I don’t want it to be all American girls. Like a lot of schools I talked to they probably had like three or four international girls coming to their school and for me to go there and only have like two people to talk to that actually get what it’s like to be an international student kind of made me nervous in a way. Here at OHA there’s so many international girls that I live in the dormitory with that we all make it a big family no matter where people are from. I didn’t want to end up being someone who was left out because I was international,” she said.
Sterling’s father Wyatt said his daughter has spent years working towards this opportunity.
On the same days she was training for track and field at HHSS she was also playing hockey in Oshawa. Once she got off the school bus from the high school a little after 4 p.m., he said, either he or her mother, Cindy would be there to pick her up with leftovers in hand for her to eat on the way down south to play hockey, which could be a practice or a game.
“You have to keep in mind with the Oshawa group that they played weeknight games – it was nothing for them to tour down into North York on a Tuesday night. It’s not that far for those people, right?” he said.
“There were some nights that we’d back home 12:30, 1 o’clock in the morning, maybe even later. The next morning she was in the car with Cindy and she’s back at school for 7 a.m. to practice for that long jump, like holy,” he said.
This cycle of action with hockey would continue until March.
Her father is excited for the opportunities that are inherently available with an inaugural hockey program at Indiana Tech.
“Somebody’s got to set that first record. And there are some girls from Ontario that have joined the team. There’s some from Alaska. You know, just an all over the map kind of a group. It’s going to be cool to watch some do their thing and play at a such high level. Cindy and I are still trying to process it a little bit and kind of absorbed what Sterling has achieved here,” he said. “We had it easy. We put the hours in driving and we’ve put a couple vehicles into it and threw some money at it, but the kid’s done all the work.”
Sterling said she will enter her undergraduate year with an undeclared major, but will be taking psychology courses to be able to potentially pursue a path to a career related to helping young people dealing with anxiety and stress.
“I know growing up the stress of sports and stuff can be really tough on a lot of kids my age and just being able to have someone like a psychologist or a therapist, who understands what they went through is so much easier than trying to talk to someone who tries to understand it,” she said.
She adds helping others comes from her own challenges with mental health, and from her experience at the academy she’s seen the importance of having an outlet for teens such as how she can turn to her friends to deal with the stress related to challenges involving academics, athletics and life in general.
“Just to have that option to say, like, ‘Hey, I had a bad day this is why’ is so much more helpful than trying to push through it by yourself. Like a lot of kids in sports, having their teammates to fall back on can help them a lot, then they’re not bottling up this stress and stuff because of [the fact] they’re worried their teammates might not help them,” she said.
Her father concurs with her daughter, recognizing how she could do well, having been a recipient of help as a teen athlete while in high school with her track coach Russ Duhaime.
Sterling’s father said her daughter is interested in sports psychology so she can give back.
“Russ was her go-to guy for talking and there was nobody here that does that – talks to these athletes. She’s obviously not the only athlete around here that’s working hard and travelling a lot,” he said.
Wyatt adds it’s challenging for young athletes, who can’t always speak to their parents and so there is a need for someone who is equipped and possesses the skills to help. As far as the future goes, he just wants the best for Sterling wherever that is.
“I think it’s admirable, right? She knows what it takes to get where she has and she wants to give back … if it happens here great,” he said. “Cindy and I refuse to be those parents, ‘Oh, you got to come back and work at home, right?’ Wherever she ends up, like every parent, hope for the best for success in that department. It’s hard to say where after Indiana, after the hockey, if she’ll be involved with coaching or working with different teams, or if she’ll work in Canada or work in the States. We call it the great adventure for a reason, I guess. You know, you kind of take it as it comes.”
Call it luck. Call it serendipitous. There was definitely something at play that can’t be explained about decisions and chance meetings that needed to happen for Sterling to be recruited by the Warriors.
Sterling’s two seasons playing for the Bancroft Jets as a pee wee player almost didn’t happen. If she didn’t choose to join the all-girls team she’s not sure she would have ended up attending OHA.
She admits she was nervous joining the Jets initially, coming from playing with the boys she grew up with in the Highland Storm to having to join a team with nobody she knew. It was one of several pivotal decisions that led her to joining Indiana Tech.
“If I didn’t get that call that day and didn’t say, ‘Let’s go try this.’ Then I would have never been where I’m at,” she said.
Also, the Nesbitts said a chance meeting during a shopping trip to Whitby for skates for Sterling’s younger brother, Walker had an influence over Sterling’s life. Tyler Gubler, who was a coach for an A and AA girls’ hockey team, happened to be working at the store and helped with the skate fitment. He needed a player for spring and summer tournaments in Boston and Toronto and asked Cindy about her daughter. She called Wyatt about the idea.
“We hummed and hawwed about this meeting of a stranger. It was in Toronto so we took the leap of faith and went. That was Sterling’s introduction to the very highest level of hockey. She did great,” he said.
Sterling, who also remembers playing in Boston that summer, recounts the significance of that chance meeting and how it helped her, particularly since she ended up playing for Gubler again for the season in Oshawa with the Lady Generals.
“It amazes in the fact if my brother hadn’t needed skates and we didn’t go in on that day that he wasn’t working and I didn’t go with my mom then I never would have made it to Oshawa and then I wouldn’t have had the confidence to email the school I’m at now, ‘Hey, can you guys come watch me?’ And then I wouldn’t have got in to OHA. It amazes me all the decisions I’ve had up to this point have led me to accomplishing my life goal,” she said.
She recognizes how cliche it sounds, but can’t articulate the importance of the key moments in a person’s life any other way.
“Everything in life happens for a reason and that you shouldn’t take any of that for granted,” she said.
Her parents also remember the invaluable help they received from Jaclyn Hawkins, who is the president and founder of Women’s Hockey Life. She spent an hour with them, discussing her options, which led to Sterling deciding on attending OHA where she played on teams that travelled all over.
Many graduating high school students going to university will be experiencing life away from home for the first time. However, for Sterling life away from home has been the norm the past three years. She said life associated with living in a dormitory in Cornwall at OHA has prepared her for the transition to living in the U.S.
Her maturity has been a standout attribute and it’s something her father, the Highlands community where she worked summers, and the academy has recognized.
“She’s always that one that kind of goes and doesn’t get too wild. She’s worked during her teenage years pretty regularly at different spots around the area and everybody has always complimented her on her work ethic and she’s just more independent than when she first went to the academy in Grade 10,” Wyatt said.
He adds her school advisor at the academy said Sterling is one of, if not the most organized students going through the recruitment process – on time and keeps up-to-date with correspondence.
Wyatt said all the credit related to the recruiting process goes to his daughter.
Striving to be her best isn’t for anyone else but herself Sterling said.
“As long as I can better myself and feel good where I’m at, whether it be playing or school or just friendship, as long as I feel good at where I’m at, or want to improve in areas, that’s what I strive to work for,” she said.
In her life there have been people, who didn’t believe in her abilities. She said her hockey journey helped her development as a player and a person. She chose to focus on working hard and to remember her boosters.
“So getting the opportunity to go out and play in other places other than Haliburton kind of allowed me to grow myself as well as my confidence in the sport, but also the friends I have now who still support me and want to push me through playing hockey from home. Because I can come home and know they’re going to be there for me no matter what,” she said.
She encourages young people to pursue their dreams and welcomes any young person who wants help and sees her to join her on the ice.
“I want to be able to be someone that is approachable in that situation because I know there have been a couple guys who had great opportunities to go out and do amazing things with their athletics and their future academics, but they weren’t approachable, which made it hard for them to relate back to the community and because growing up in Haliburton and everyone’s so close and everything I just want to make sure that I’m there for the kids who want to do whatever they want to do, whether they want to play hockey and go to school for hockey or run cross-country and go to school for cross-country or anything, I just want to be helpful,” she said.
Sterling said her journey isn’t possible without the help of her parents and the support of the community, and friends such as the Little family, particularly Larry and son Isaac Little, who she said have “always had my back throughout things.”
Her message to pre-teens with hopes and dreams is to not listen to the doubters.
“They should keep pushing on. I grew up with a lot of people telling me I couldn’t and they shouldn’t listen to that. They should strive for their best opportunity no matter what others say,” she said.