Making history at home: Panthers capture first-ever win at nationals

Making history at home: Panthers capture first-ever win at nationals

By Thomas Becker

If we learned anything as a society in the last two years, it's how to better appreciate the little things in life.

Yes, the UPEI Women's Hockey Panthers can no longer contend for a national medal, but in many ways, Saturday's win was worth more than gold, silver, or bronze.

The 2022 U SPORTS Women's Hockey Championship got off to a rocky start for the Panthers as it was revealed Friday morning that head coach Bruce Donaldson—who's coaching in his final season—could no longer participate in the tournament he's worked tirelessly to bring to UPEI. And the bane that is COVID-19 was the reason why. 

"It's been difficult for sure," Donaldson said. "It's been tough not being around the team this weekend."

To stay connected with his team, the bench boss phoned in to offer his words of encouragement and deliver his powerful pre-game speeches. And when the game was in session assistant coaches, Lance Jones and Ashlyn Somers were equipped with earbuds to communicate with Donaldson while managing the bench. 

Of course, that presented its own challenges.

"I was still able to do a version of a pre-game session and I was able to talk to the coaches during the game," Donaldson explained. "The main challenge was the time lag between what I see on the screen and what's actually happening." 

Throw in a date with the No. 1 team in the country in the Concordia Stingers, and suddenly the task seemed insurmountable. The Panthers hung around with Concordia for two periods but were still down 3-0 after 40 minutes. Then, the Stingers took over in the third period where they netted four more goals, as UPEI's medal hopes were snatched away in front of a sold-out home crowd.

It was a tough game, but the Panthers wouldn't let it define them.

With just a 14-hour turnaround before their next game, UPEI came to play Saturday afternoon against the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) champion Brock Badgers in the consolation semifinals.

"We knew what this game meant to Bruce and the program," said captain Sophie Vandale.

The game plan was simple. Lay it all on the line.

"I think because we were the underdogs of this tournament, we had nothing to lose and it allowed us to play our game and not be afraid."

The first period was a defensive grind as both teams struggled to generate scoring opportunities. It wasn't until 12:48 of the second period when UPEI's Jolena Gillard broke the deadlock. The third-year forward drove hard to the net and wired a wrist shot by goaltender Tiffany Hsu for the game's opening goal.

Gillard ended any hope of a Badger third-period comeback, as she put away her second goal late in the game to close out the win. 

"Scoring two goals at nationals is an unreal feeling. But for me, it wasn't so much about the scoring. It was about the hype and excitement the team got from that," Gillard said.

"We definitely miss Bruce, but I think we're making him proud. He's worked so hard for the past two years and getting a win for him was the least we could do."

The thing is, this wasn't just any win. This one was different. It was the first win at nationals in program history, and it happened at home.

For veteran goaltender Camille Scherger, it was a monumental moment.

"The pride I have for this team and UPEI is indescribable. It's such an honour to be part of the first group to get a win at nationals. I'm glad to check that off the bucket list before my time is up here," said Scherger, who recorded her first shutout win at nationals.

"It's pretty special to get a shutout win in front of a crowd like that and my family."

For Donaldson, the moment was just as special even though he was forced to watch history unfold from a distance.

"We talked about creating history today, and they did it. I'm incredibly proud."

Photo Credit: Janessa Hogan and Mike Needham