The lone prairie Panther

Vandale says small town atmosphere makes UPEI great

Sophie Vandale (2) carries the puck up the ice during the U Sports national women's hockey championship.

Panthers may not typically be native to the Canadian prairies, but the University of Prince Edward Island has found the first of her kind with Sophie Vandale.

Winnipeg-born Vandale skated in her first national championship game Thursday — a 3-0 loss for her University of Prince Edward Island Panthers — and says the experience mattered far more than the result.

“I thought last night’s game was just awesome — the fans were fantastic,” she said.

“Our team knew that it was going to be a tough game. The Montreal [Carabins] were ranked second in Canada, so we just knew we had to battle out every minute and that’s what we did and I’m really proud of our team — we worked really hard.”

The fan support has been huge for the host Panthers and the tournament in general since festivities kicked off Thursday. Bell Aliant Centre was packed for the Panthers’ tournament opener with only standing room tickets available for many fans arriving from out of town.

“We usually have a pretty good crowd but last night was just amazing,” Vandale said.

“The seats were full, basically, and after we lost the game the fans were still cheering for us, and it was just so heartwarming. It was the best feeling ever.”

This general excitement extends to the entire city of Charlottetown. The city has collectively embraced the tournament, welcomed the teams and the buzz around town is exactly what Vandale and her team expected.

“Because it’s in a small town I feel like everyone wants to help out, and there were actually too many volunteers,” she said.

“Too many people wanted to help out and so everyone knows about [the tournament] — even my profs have asked me, ‘Oh how was your game last night?’ or like they came and watched my game.”

UPEI was given the chance to not only host the national tournament one year, but in back-to-back years, something Vandale said was an eye opener and source of major excitement in the Panthers dressing room.

“Last year our coach emailed us at like nine in the morning and he was like ‘Everyone come to the rink,’” she said.

“So we all went there, we’re all freaking out, we have no idea what this is about, and then he sits us down as he’s like ‘OK guys we’re hosting nationals next year’ and everyone is just ecstatic — super excited. Then he goes ‘and we’re hosting it the year after that, too.’”

“It’s kind of a nice thing too though because whatever doesn’t go right this time we can fix and will work better for next time,” she said.

The Panthers faced the U of M Bisons in the consolation semifinals, giving Vandale a chance to play her hometown team for the first time.

Not only that, but she got to see fellow graduates of the Winnipeg Avros program. Goaltender Lauren Taraschuk, forwards Emilie Massé, Jordyn Zacharias, Alanna Sharman and Erin Kucheravy, and defenders Alexandra Anderson and Brielle Dacquay-Neveux are all former Avros.

Unlike those Avros, though, Vandale was not given a chance to stay home. The lone Canada West team to even recruit her was the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns, but she instead chose to head east with UPEI.

“Honestly I had never been to the east coast so I’m like ‘Hey […] let’s go for the next four years,’” Vandale said.

“It’s been awesome,” she said.

“The class sizes are super small so you’re really close with your [professors]. And our coaching staff is amazing and I love my teammates so couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Although the transition was not easy — having to ramp up to a quicker and more competitive university game, along with being a full-time student — Vandale said she now feels right at home in Charlottetown and likened the atmosphere to her hometown.

“I feel like I know everyone here,” she said.

“You go to Superstore and everyone just says hi to you and you have no idea who they are. But it’s kind of like Winnipeg, you just say hi to everyone, even though you don’t know them.”