‘We will not forget her’: Kinesiology hockey game keeps Joan Heimbecker’s memory alive

Image of Kinesiology Professor Martin Gibala on the left and graduate student Kaylee White on the right, holding their hockey skates and smiling for a photo

Kinesiology Professor Martin Gibala, left, and graduate student Kaylee White will be teammates for the Heimbecker Memorial Cup Friday night. The annual game honours the memory of a graduate student who was killed in 1994.

Kaylee White’s helping keep a promise made years ago to honour fellow grad student Joan Heimbecker.

White is playing in the 21st annual Heimbecker Memorial Cup Friday night at the Morgan Firestone Arena in Ancaster. The hockey game has McMaster Kinesiology undergraduates facing off against a team of grad students and profs.

Last year, White played stay-at-home defence on the undergrad team — the losing side.

This year, she’ll be trading jerseys and hoping the profs and grad students continue their winning streak.

More than a hockey game

Graduation photo of Joan Heimbecker
Joan Heimbecker

Even though White was born nine years after Heimbecker’s murder, she knows the story — they all do.

The Heimbecker Cup is far more than just a hockey game and a highlight of the year for Kinesiology: The annual event raises money for the Joan Heimbecker Memorial Scholarship and Bursary and supports Interval House Hamilton, a non-profit emergency shelter for women experiencing family violence.

And it keeps Heimbecker’s story from fading from memory.

Heimbecker was shot five times by an ex-boyfriend in her apartment in the Bates Residence on March 30, 1994. She was 25 years old.

When her killer tried and failed to get early parole, neighbours and family friends from Heimbecker’s hometown of Clifford, Ont., boarded chartered buses at the break of dawn to fill every seat in the Hamilton courtroom.

Born and raised on her family’s 100-acre dairy farm in Wellington County, Heimbecker graduated top of her class in physical education at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Her grade point average was .44 shy of perfect. At convocation, she was awarded the Governor General’s Gold Medal for outstanding scholastic achievement. She planned to dedicate her career to helping children.

Heimbecker joined Mac’s kinesiology department in September 1993.

The most meaningful award

Grad students in kinesiology have always been a tight-knit group.

Jim Lyons was one of her many friends. On the morning after Heimbecker’s murder, Lyons got a call at 6 a.m., telling him to get to the department for an emergency meeting. That’s where he first heard the news. He was shocked, then devastated.

Now chair of the Kinesiology department, Lyons remembers that heartbreaking morning like it was yesterday.

The department immediately established a memorial scholarship, which recognizes a grad student who — like Heimbecker — shows the highest commitment to academic, social and community activities.

Lyons was awarded the first scholarship in 1995. He considers the award the most meaningful he’s ever received.

The Heimbecker Memorial Bursary for a grad student in financial need was added in 2002.

Laurier also presents the Joan Heimbecker Award to the graduating Honours Kinesiology and Physical Education student with the highest overall four-year academic average.

In 2003, Mac’s Kinesiology Graduate Student Association dropped the puck on the first Heimbecker Memorial Cup. Association president Gianni Parise wanted to ensure that new Kinesiology students, faculty and staff would know why the scholarship and bursary were named after Heimbecker.

This wouldn’t be a one-and-done event. Parise, now the acting associate vice-president of Research at Mac, enshrined the game into the association’s constitution: If the association holds only one event a year, it will be the Heimbecker Cup.

‘We will not forget her’

Professor Martin Gibala’s played in nearly every cup. He missed last year’s after tearing his meniscus during a pickup hockey game just hours before game time.

Gibala met Heimbecker when they were both graduate students, soon becoming fast friends.

He paid tribute to Heimbecker in a 2011 guest editorial in the Hamilton Spectator while he was department chair.

“Society is poorer because Joan’s tremendous potential went unfulfilled. Joan had a remarkable and lasting impact on the Department of Kinesiology despite the short time she spent at McMaster. Her spirit lives on and we will not forget her.”

At the Heimbecker Memorial Cup, the hockey “is typically mediocre, but the significance of the event is monumental,” he wrote.

Play has improved over the years with the addition of younger faculty with solid hockey skills, and the event remains monumental.

On Friday night, Gibala will be skating alongside White, trying his best to keep up and honouring his friend.

The puck drops on the 21st Annual Heimbecker Memorial Cup at 7 p.m. on Friday April 5 at the Morgan Firestone Arena in Ancaster. Tickets are available online from Eventbrite and from the Kinesiology Graduate Student Association office this Wednesday and Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and 1:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Donations can also be made to support the Heimbecker Memorial Bursary and Interval House Hamilton at on GoFundMe. Click here for more information.

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