CHARLOTTETOWN, PEI – The Montreal Carabins have hope at the U SPORTS women’s hockey championship. After a strong year, led by forward and FISU Games gold medalist Audrey-Anne Veillete, the program dreams of winning on home ice.
On Thursday, the finalists from Canada West, AUS, RSEQ and OUA take the ice at CEPSUM at the University of Montreal, looking to win the Golden Path Trophy, awarded to the winners of the U SPORTS women’s hockey championship.
More than most, this year has a wide-open field, with nearly every team presenting a case for why they could win. With that, 49 Sports looks at how the teams might stack up in La Belle Provence.
U SPORTS WOMEN’S HOCKEY CHAMPIONSHIP:
Thursday – 3:00 pm ET | MRU Cougars v Toronto Varsity Blues
Thursday – 7:30 pm ET | UNB Reds v Montreal Carabins
Friday – 3:00 pm ET | StFX X-Women v UBC Thunderbirds
Friday – 7:30 pm ET | Nipissing Lakers v Concordia Stingers
RSEQ CHAMPIONS: Concordia Stingers
Coming into the tournament, there’s no team with more expectation of a championship than the Concordia Stingers. After winning the U SPORTS banner in 2022 and repeating as RSEQ Champions in a heated final series this season, they take the short drive to UdeMontreal brimming with confidence.
Led up front by leading scorer and Team Canada FISU captain Emmy Fecteau, the Stingers play a hard and fast game, which relies on developing too many scoring chances for teams to handle.
Fecteau ended the season with 13 goals and 32 points while also missing time as she captained Canada to a gold medal in Lake Placid, where she also played top-line minutes. Meanwhile, Rosalie Begin-Cyr continued her development in 2022-23, scoring nine goals and 27 points.
Also, InStat rated Concordia with the highest expected goals per game in U SPORTS with 4.1 xG, proving they consistently create scoring chances each time they play. However, their actual goals per game was 3.8, meaning they’re playing even better than the scoresheets suggest.
With Olympic champions Julie Chu and Caroline Ouellette coaching the team, Concordia battled to the RSEQ championship after a tough final series win over the Carabins. They’re confident they can repeat as U SPORTS champions.
OUA CHAMPIONS: Toronto Varsity Blues
The Toronto Varsity Blues have a flair for the dramatic, but they’ve got some good form coming into the U SPORTS tournament. After trailing for much of the OUA McCaw Cup Final against the Nipissing Lakers, Katy McKenna and Celine Frappier scored in the late stages to push them to their second conference title in three seasons.
As they take on the U SPORTS tournament, they hope to complete their unfinished business from 2020’s COVID cancelled competition.
Led by head coach and U SPORTS coach of the year Vicky Sunohara, the Varsity Blues have a deep roster in every position and won games in various ways this season. Whether it was purely outsourcing, or defensive masterclasses, the Varsity Blues knew how to play.
Offensively, keep an eye on captain Taylor Trussler who has been on a tear since returning from injury in January, scoring 10 goals and 15 points in 14 games. Meanwhile, veterans Nikki McDonald and Natashha Athenesakos have been firing on all cylinders all season, with 24 and 21 points, respectively.
At the back, Olivia Hilton has been the queen of the blueline with her two-way play, while Madison Walsh and Emma Potter have taken on big minutes through OUA competition. At the same time, Madeline Albert and Erica Fryer have been stellar in net, but expect Fryer to take the bulk of the U SPORTS minutes.
It’s a turning point year for the Varsity Blues, and one they’re hoping they can make count on a national stage. So many from the 2019-20 McCaw group graduate this season, and now they can go out on top.
CANADA WEST CHAMPIONS: UBC Thunderbirds
The UBC Thunderbirds have a tough road at the U SPORTS national championships, opening against the country’s top scorer in Maggy Burbidge and the StFX X-Women. Should they win, it’s likely a battle with the defending champion Concordia Stingers.
While it may not be a super-friendly draw for head coach Graham Thomas and the two-time reigning Canada West champions, they have reason to believe they can make a U SPORTS banner run.
The Thunderbirds broke the Canada West record for most wins in a season, enjoying a 12-game win streak to end the regular season en route to a 24-3-0 record. The special thing, however, was the quality of opponents they faced, with the always contending Alberta Pandas, alongside improved teams from TWU, Saskatchewan and Mount Royal.
With it all, they still posted a record-smashing season.
Up front, veteran forward Chanreet Bassi continued her career with another stellar season, scoring a career-high 28 points in 26 games. Yet, her value this season transitioned away from a pure goalscorer to a critical set-up player, potting 20 assists as Cassidy Rhodes led the team in goals with 14.
It’s veterans leading the backend, with Hannah Koroll and Sophia Gaskell playing significant minutes and taking on more two-way responsibilities in the playoffs. Meanwhile, goaltender Elise Hugens has been a quintessential piece to UBC’s puzzle with a .949 save percentage, good for third in U SPORTS.
After falling 1-0 in OT to the Nipissing Lakers in last year’s U SPORTS championship quarter-finals, the Thunderbirds are determined to play for a medal in Montreal.
AUS CHAMPIONS: UNB Reds
It’s a special era in UNB Reds hockey, as the last of UNB women’s hockey players’ first class of graduates. Since rebooting the program in 2018, the Reds have been on a rise, culminating in AUS championships in the last two seasons. While they ultimately fell short of their goal at the 2022 U SPORTS tournament, they’ve got high hopes for 2023.
Led by builder and head coach Sarah Hilworth, the Reds are one of the country’s best all-around teams; if there’s a year to win a national title, it’s 2023. But, while U SPORTS goalie and player of the year Kendra Woodland is undoubtedly the team’s X-factor, it’s a challenging roster to beat from top to bottom.
Woodland has had a tremendous season and could nearly single-handedly push UNB to a title. She allowed one goal in four games, leading Team Canada to gold at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games while posting a .960 save percentage in 17 AUS games with UNB.
To say she’s critical is an understatement.
Yet, there’s a lot more to UNB than just goaltending. Senior Lilian George led the team in scoring this season with 27 points in 25 games, while fellow gift year Frederike Cyr notched 17 assists and 22 points. All that before Cyr scored a shorthanded overtime winner to win the AUS title over the StFX X-Women.
On the blueline, Jenna MacLean and Mackenzie Keenan hold things right ahead of Woodland while also helping quarter-back offensive possession, which helped UNB produce 22.3 scoring chances per game, good for fourth in U SPORTS.
Facing the host Montreal Carabins in the first round, advancing will be a test for the Reds, but one they’re certainly strong enough to pass.
RSEQ runner-ups: Montreal Carabins
The Montreal Carabins have home-ice advantage at the U SPORTS tournament this year, and could make some noise despite not winning one of the least-challenging conferences in U SPORTS.
With Annabelle Faubert and Audrey-Anne Veilliete, there’s strong top players on Montreal, but the depth of other teams may bring their U SPORTS hopes to an earlier end than expected.
OUA runner-ups: Nipissing Lakers
The Nipissing Lakers were less than four minutes away from their first McCaw Cup title a week ago in Toronto before letting the lead slip against the Varsity Blues. However, they’ve got the potential to make a run in Montreal.
While goaltender Chantelle Sandquist gives them a shot each time they play and is coming off a 49-save performance in the OUA final, the electric offensive talent on Nipissing is some of the best.
Led by head coach Darren Turcotte, the Lakers feature the elusive and dynamic sister duo of Maria and Mallory Dominico. Mallory finished the season as an OUA first-team all-star, scoring 15 goals and 26 points in 26 games, while Maria scored exceptional goals, despite a lower total tally, at 16 points.
Maria scored the goal below in the OUA semifinal against the Waterloo Warriors, going semi-viral for her stick-handling acrobatics. Additionally, her speed and positional offensive play helped Canada to gold at the Lake Placid FISU Games.
Nipissing plays a well-disciplined, organized and fun style of hockey, and with players such as the Dominicos, Katia Chomiak, Maggie McKee and several others, they’re a contender in Montreal.
Canada West runner-ups: MRU Cougars
The MRU Cougars face an uphill battle at this year’s U SPORTS Championships. However, they’re the ultimate underdog story and nearly won their first banner in program history.
Led by all-star Tatum Amy, who scored 24 assists and 31 points in 26 games, the Cougars rely upon their ability to see out tight games. Defensively, although they allow 35+ shots per game against top teams, they push chances to the outside and lower-percentage scoring areas.
Facing the Toronto Varsity Blues will be a tough test in the first round. Yet, it does pit an intriguing matchup together, with Toronto’s Céline Frappier having been a last-minute replacement for MRU’s Tatum Amy on Canada’s FISU Games roster.
AUS runner-ups: StFX X-Women
As a Team Canada FISU gold medalist and the leading goalscorer in U SPORTS, Maggy Burbidge has been a star for the StFX X-Women throughout her career, especially in 2022-23.
The native of Falmouth, Nova Scotia, scored 25 goals and 47 points in just 24 regular season games this year, putting her among the best to ever play in Canadian university hockey. As well, she helped StFX finish second in U SPORTS for chances created per game at 24.1.
She’s proven herself as a versatile player but has thrived in the low slot for the X-Women this year, often playing a bumper role on the cycle if she’s not skating through opponents herself. With her worldly points tallies, it’s unfathomable to think of the numbers she could hit if she weren’t facing UNB’s Woodland in the regular season.
Outside of Burbidge, however, is a strong team from top to bottom. Leah MacLeod also won gold at the FISU Games and scored 12 goals for 32 points in 24 games, while Chloe Vukosa hit 31 points on the season.
An extremely offensive team, the X-Women were decent in their own end as well, backed by goaltender Jamie Johnson, who helped them push through to the AUS Final.
As head coach Ben Berthiaume leads the X-Women into the national tournament, they hold one of the biggest opportunities for an upset in the opening round, facing a UBC Thunderbirds team that has proven beatable this season.
Should they get through UBC, a run is certainly plausible as well, albeit challenging.
The U SPORTS Women’s Hockey Championship begins on Thursday afternoon with the first quarterfinal games, streaming live on CBC Sports. Find the bracket and further coverage below.