Sitting a few metres from the rink where she and the rest of the UBC Thunderbirds women’s hockey team celebrated last season’s league title, Mikayla Ogrodniczuk’s brave front shows a tiny crack.
The defenceman is sharing stories about goalie Laura Taylor, a friend and confidante who always had a smile on her face and knew how to make others laugh.
“She was full of wisdom,” said Ogrodniczuk, her eyes starting to glisten with tears. “We knew that we could always go to her, no matter what.”
But most of UBC’s players had no idea Taylor spent nearly half her life dealing with bipolar disorder and crippling depression. Her suicide on April 7, 2016, just days before her 34th birthday, came as a devastating shock.
“She just carried herself so well,” head coach Graham Thomas said as he leaned forward to survey the ice where Taylor used to practise. “There was never really any kind of signs … nothing really jumped out at us.”
UBC will honour Taylor before Friday’s home game by retiring the Kelowna, B.C., native’s No. 29 jersey with 60 family and friends in attendance.
The goal is to not only reflect on the life of a daughter, sister, aunt, friend and teammate, but to also keep the dialogue about mental illness open.
“I think she would want to be remembered as someone with a lot of strength,” said defenceman Kelly Murray. “That’s part of the reason this is so important to us — we want people to realize that just because you’re struggling with something doesn’t make you weak.
“Being able to admit you need help and say you struggle with something makes you stronger.”
Taylor’s family took the lead almost immediately after her death, asking in the obituary for people to “please reach out to someone you may feel is hurting emotionally.”
“Laura would not love us putting her out to the world,” her sister Heather Taylor said in a phone interview from Calgary before heading to Vancouver. “When she died we had to make a decision, and we decided that we don’t want this to happen to another family.”
A medical student, Taylor was outspoken about ending the stigma around mental illness, but stayed mostly private about her struggles. The Thunderbirds even talked about the issue as group before last season, and while a teammate shared her own story, Taylor remained silent.
“She had a huge heart and spent a lot of time and energy, sometimes which she really didn’t have to give, to try and reach out and help others,” said her sister, who along with their father is a family physician. “It really added something to her life. She would have been a great doctor.
“She was so bright, so smart. It was really a waste.”
Taylor was diagnosed as bipolar in her first year of undergrad at the University of Saskatchewan, where she also played hockey, in the early 2000s.
“There would definitely be times when she was feeling better, meaning not depressed,” said Heather Taylor. “And there were times when every moment was probably a pretty big struggle just to get out of the house.
“She spent a good chunk of her life hanging out with doctors … just trying to coexist with the disease.”
Her sister said that while Taylor was at a higher risk for suicide, she had been in a good place the last few years.
“We were really blown away,” she said. “She was really forward-oriented in her plans.”
For instance, Taylor called Thomas out of the blue in the summer of 2015 to see if there was any room for a practice goalie at UBC. The Thunderbirds already had three netminders, but when one veteran abruptly backed out, a spot needed to be filled.
“It didn’t take her too long to think it through,” said Thomas, whose team won last season’s Canada West crown before finishing second at the national tournament. “She was very mature and very dedicated.”
Taylor knew there wasn’t much playing time to be had — she got into a couple of exhibition games — but one of her aims was to mentor younger teammates.
“We struggle with taking four classes and getting to the rink on time,” said Murray. “Here she is a full-time med student working shifts at the hospital and still coming to practice.
“She was definitely an inspiration.”
It’s difficult for Taylor’s family to talk about the person they’ve lost. They know Friday will a tough day, but they also know it’s the best way to honour her memory.
“We’re not going to get rid of stigma if we hide,” said Taylor’s sister. “If we can change someone else’s experience with their mental illness by talking about this and making it OK to talk about, maybe we save someone’s life.
“If no one talks about suicide or no one talks about mental illness, we will never make changes.”