When Amber Gaudette first picked up a stick at age seven in small town Alberton, P.E.I., she played with boys because there were no all-girls teams in the area.
She couldn’t imagine then that by the time she was 23 years old, not only would she be captaining the University of Prince Edward Island women’s hockey team, but she’d also be hoisting the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) trophy over her head – and competing for a national championship.
But that’s exactly what was in store this season for the UPEI Panthers, who achieved several firsts for the program. The team made history when it edged St. Francis Xavier University 2-1 in overtime to move on to the AUS gold medal game, shut out Mount Allison University 3-0 to claim the league championship and booked a ticket to Edmonton, Alta., for the 2012 Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championship, where they finished sixth.
“I never dreamt that we’d be lifting the AUS Cup,” Gaudette said after a long day of travelling home from nationals. “My first couple of years … we played St. FX … and our goal of the game would be to keep the scores as low as we possibly could.”
“We had never beat St. FX until the AUS this year,” the fifth-year forward continued. “All the graduating players came together and were like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening!’ ”
But it did happen for the Panthers, who since the team’s inception nine years ago have grown in skill, speed and strength – sure signs of the female game’s development not only at the island’s largest post-secondary institution, but also across the province.
“When I first started in Alberton, there was no female hockey teams, that’s why I had to go to O’Leary, but now there are female hockey teams there, all up through the levels,” she said of growing up on P.E.I., as the sport she loves to play grew, too. “We had a UPEI game but we hosted in my hometown … and there were so many fans there, and all the young hockey players were there, and it’s really good to see.”
Not only do Gaudette and her teammates serve as visible role models for young female players on the island, but they also run regular skills camps, and some will be volunteering their time at the 2012 Esso Cup in Charlottetown. After graduating with a biology degree this spring, Gaudette plans to pursue occupational therapy, and will continue coaching the sport that has always inspired her to aim high, including high enough to win an AUS title before finishing her UPEI career.
Panthers head coach Bruce Donaldson, who also happens to be both the event and finance chair of the 2012 Esso Cup, said his team has always been active within local female programs, often inviting minor hockey teams to attend games and meet the players afterwards. He agrees women’s hockey across the province has come a long way since he first stepped behind the bench some 27 years ago, including six seasons with UPEI’s female program.
“When my daughter came of age with the under-15 program, I started to migrate towards the female side, and found that I really enjoyed it quite a bit more,” he said of what got him hooked on the girls’ game. “The female hockey community, they wanted to learn … and really started to try and build a base on the island.”
In 2000-01, 884 females signed up to play in P.E.I., a number which had almost doubled a decade later, with 1,417 registering across the province during the 2010-11 season. “It’s grown certainly as far as our numbers go,” Hockey PEI female council chair Dawn Moase says. “The players have improved as far as skill, the coaching has improved and our programs have improved.”
“As the game as grown, so has development,” she said, adding the UPEI Panthers “are great ambassadors.”
“We try to give back, especially to the younger girls, as much as possible,” said one of UPEI’s fourth-year players, Donaldson’s daughter, Jaimelynn. “These are the ones that are probably going to be playing for the school someday.”
Jaimelynn, now 22, chose to come back to the island and play for her father’s team after honing her skills at prep school Ridley College in St. Catharines, Ont.
“I just feel honoured that I was a part of it, and we just worked so hard,” she said of not just helping UPEI win its first-ever AUS title, but of experiencing it alongside her long-time coach while growing up in the Maritimes, her dad. “I was holding myself together after we won, but near the end when we were all getting pictures and everything, I went over and gave him a hug and just kind of lost it … I’m pretty lucky that I got to share that with him.”
Jaimelynn said women’s hockey successes showcased through CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada, hosted from the island this February, the university’s 2012 AUS win last month and the 2012 Esso Cup, Canada’s National Female Midget Championship, coming to the province’s capital this month, “are going to shed more light on female hockey in P.E.I.”
Her coach-father hopes these high profile accomplishments will also encourage more girls to stay and play in Canada during their post-secondary career years. “For our program, I hope it’ll convince some of the local girls … that coming back to the island and playing for UPEI would be a good thing,” he said. “I think females will start to recognize that the academics are exceptionally good all over the country … and it’s exceptionally good hockey.”