The UPEI Panthers went through the back door to get to the U Sports women’s hockey championship but left through the front door with their heads held high.
The Panthers lost 3-0 to Montreal in their opener on Thursday that included a Panthers shot that hit the crossbar and a missed penalty shot by Summerside’s Taylor Gillis. They lost 3-1 to the defending champion Manitoba Bisons Saturday in a game that was 1-1 with 8:32 to play.
“We proved ourselves right and we proved the whole country wrong,” said goalie Camille Scherger, who stopped 24 and 40 shots in the two games, respectively. “Our dressing room had so much belief in each other and our abilities to go out there and compete and, as you can see, we did that.”
The Panthers have 15 first- and second-year players on their roster and will host next year’s championship as well with essentially the same lineup.
The UPEI squad didn’t know what the competition level would be like or what to expect from their first trip to nationals.
“The mystique of that is now gone,” head coach Bruce Donaldson said. “We understand what the good teams look like, how good they execute and what we do know is we can compete.”
The players now have history to lean on as they prepare for next season.
“I am pretty sure on Thursday I felt every single emotion – excited, nervous, anxious, butterflies – but you really just have to dial it in and play that game,” said Kaylee Dufresne, a third-year forward from Orleans, Ont., who was a physical force and a hard worker all tournament.
“We’re already getting ready for (next year). It’s going to be a long year, but I think we all know what we’re capable of now.”
The Panthers were supported by a large, vocal crowds during both of their games. It is a far cry from what they traditionally see during the regular season and playoffs.
“It was absolutely amazing,” said Gillis, who scored the Panthers lone goal. “The support that was shown this weekend was crazy. I’ve never saw so many people excited to watch girls’ hockey, especially on P.E.I. I’ve never played in front of a crowd like that.”
Donaldson said those who attended the tournament got to see the skill, speed and physicality of the game and the team hopes to see more people in the stands next season.
“I felt like all of P.E.I. was here,” said defenceman Sophie Vandale, a second-year Panther from Winnipeg. “Everyone was cheering us on. We lost the game, but I felt like the crowd was on our side either way. It just felt amazing.”
The Panthers had to overcome finding out Monday that captain Emma Weatherbie was out for the tournament with a pulmonary embolism.
“Honestly, I had a ball in my throat and I wanted to cry,” Vandale said to her initial reaction. “She’s our best player and she’s worked so hard.”
She said it was heartbreaking to see the fifth-year player unable to be on the ice and she wanted to give Weatherbie her spot. While Weatherbie wasn’t on the ice, she was at the rink and her impact was felt by those on the bench.
“We just thought we’re going to play this weekend for Emma,” Vandale said. “On Thursday night, her jersey was up there (near the bench) and she was playing with us. She was our biggest supporter this whole weekend and we had to play like she plays all the time – just 100 per cent all the time.”
Donaldson used a word to sum up his feelings after Saturday’s game.
“Proud,” he said. “They really rallied and everybody embraced the role that we asked them to do.”