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Thunderbird women in hunt for first Canadian university hockey championship

Thunderbirds in hunt for women's hockey crown

It's been quite a ride for the five University of British Columbia Thunderbirds who helped the women's hockey team go from poorhouse to power house.

UBC (23-4-1) is the top seed heading into the national women's championship starting Thursday in Napanee, Ont., and will open the tournament against the host and No. 8-seeded Queen's Gaels.

Current captain Stephanie Schaupmeyer of Kelowna, B.C., North Vancouver's Nicole Saxvik, Haneet Parhar of West Vancouver, Jenna Carpenter-Boesch of Gray, Sask., and Emily O'Neill of Oakville, Ont., joined a team five years ago that had won just one game in 2011-12.

Under new coach Graham Thomas, the Thunderbird women won the Canada West conference for the first time in the school's history in 2013. They finished fifth at the national championship that year.

UBC reached the national final for the first time in 2016 and lost 8-0 to the University of Montreal Carabins. The T-Birds are back a second straight year looking to parlay their experience into one more win.

"As a senior, this is all you could ask for in your last season," Schaupmeyer said.

"In our first year, looking back now, we were just happy to be there, just happy to have won Canada West coming off the season the team had previous which was one win in that entire season.

"Last year, it was a little bit more business, but I think when we made it to that final game, we were just happy to be in that final game.

"I think everybody knows what we're here to do this time."

The U Sports women's hockey tournament field also features Guelph, Saint Mary's, McGill, St. Francis Xavier, Alberta and Concordia. The medal games are Sunday.

The T-Birds set a team record for wins and consecutive wins (15) this season.

Cassandra Vilgrain of Calgary led UBC in scoring and ranked second in Canada West with eight goals and 19 assists in 24 games.

Kelly Murray of Medicine Hat, Alta., led the conference in scoring by a defenceman with three goals and 17 assists in 24 games.

"The greatest thing about our team would be its depth," Parhar said. "You just never know who is going to win you a game, or who is going to step up. It could be our defence one game, it could be our forwards, it could be a rookie.

"It's a great feeling when you know the person next to you is going to be all there for you."

Despite their gaudy record, Parhar says they didn't go unchallenged this season. 

Their conference final against Alberta and semifinal against Saskatchewan went the distance with UBC winning Game 3 in each series.

"We've been tested all year," Parhar said. "We come from a competitive Canada West league. Every team wants to beat us just as much as any team here at nationals."

The 2016 suicide of goaltender Laura Taylor, who had struggled with depression and bipolar disorder, forged a troop mentality among her teammates coming into this season.

"We're an incredibly close team, especially after losing our teammate last year," Schaupmeyer said. "It kind of shrunk our world a little bit.

"It brought us closer together and kept those lines of communication open. We're always there for each other. It's always something that's in the back of our minds and in our hearts that we're always playing for her."

The Thunderbirds wore "LT" stickers on their helmets this season and Taylor's No. 29 was retired in a ceremony in January.

Eight players will graduate from the team after the national championship feeling they've helped build a winning program for the players who come after them.

"For the five original girls who started with this program, it's been a bit of a surreal experience for us," Parhar said. "Mostly it's been about the culture change. We expect to win now."

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press