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Women's hockey team showed UPEI can host bang-up U Sports championship

Bruce Donaldson, left, and Forbes MacPherson coach the UPEI Panthers’ hockey teams.
Bruce Donaldson, left, and Forbes MacPherson coach the UPEI Panthers’ hockey teams. - Jason Malloy

Attracting U Sports’ marquee event to Charlottetown in 2021 was boosted by an event earlier this year.

UPEI turned heads while hosting the national women’s hockey championship in March as part of its winning bid that will also see the event held here in 2020.

Panthers women’s head coach Bruce Donaldson, who is also now the manager of development and sponsorship with UPEI Athletics, said they wanted to demonstrate institutionally and to U Sports it could host a first-class national championship.

The tournament set an unofficial attendance record of 10,600 during the week and organizers provided the foundation to create an atmosphere not always present when these annual events are held.

“When we did the debrief with U Sports, they were very glowing and complimentary in terms of how the university did in terms of the presentation and execution,” Donaldson said.

It just didn’t happen.

Organizers didn’t sit on their hands and wait for the walk-up crowd to show up. The university did a lot of ground work in getting the community involved. It had individuals and groups purchase sets of tickets and those tickets were then funnelled into the community to service groups, minor hockey teams or those who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend the event.

“It was an invaluable experience,” athletics director Chris Huggan said.

The Panthers lost both games at the event but showed they belong by being in positions to win both contests.

“The amount of individuals who came up afterwards and talked about how proud they were to see UPEI compete with the top teams in the country (was special),” Donaldson said.

The Panthers will host the women’s nationals in 2020 and then the men’s in 2021.

“I have to assume that U Sports gained a ton of confidence in UPEI Athletics from the women’s event,” men’s hockey coach Forbes MacPherson said. “You would be very hard pressed, to be here and witness what happened, and not gain a lot of confidence in what the potential for what the men’s (tournament) would be.”

Donaldson said they learned a lot from bidding on the women’s event and from researching what has worked during the bid process on the men’s side in recent years. That information helped UPEI in submitting the winning bid.

MacPherson remembers the excitement and energy that filled campus during the women’s championship, as well as the men’s soccer championship in 2014. One of his players, Cole MacMillan, played on that soccer team, which won bronze, and he was named a tournament all-star.

Both Panthers’ squads, he said, rose to the occasion.

“They didn't freeze. They weren’t paralyzed by the moment,” MacPherson said. “They rose to the challenge.”

One thing that will be different this time around will be the venue.

The tournament is a big financial commitment for the partners involved in hosting the championship, so it will be played at the Eastlink Centre, which has a larger seating capacity than the Panthers’ home ice at MacLauchlan Arena.

MacPherson believes they can replicate the energy a couple of kilometres from campus.

“I can, 100 per cent, say yes because I was there. I’ve seen it happen,” he said, noting he played home games as a Panther in the mid-1990s at the then Charlottetown Civic Centre.
“I don't know how the roof stayed intact to the walls because it was insane,” he said of the 1995 conference final with Acadia.

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