The silence inside the locker room at last year’s U Sports championship still lingers in the minds of the Concordia University Stingers women’s hockey team.
With two seconds to play in the national final, the 2022 champion Stingers led the Mount Royal University Cougars 3-2, only for Breanne Trotter to score a late tying goal. In overtime, a goal from MRU’s Emma Bergesen dashed the hopes of a repeat, sending the Stingers off the ice in tears, knowing the opportunity had passed.
Julie Chu, the team’s head coach and 1998 Olympic women’s hockey champion with Team USA, was the first to address the group. Still, while the silence and tears are a memory, the heartbreak didn’t last long.
“It was tough,” captain Emmy Fecteau said. “It was probably one of the toughest and saddest moments of my life.”
WATCH | MRU defeats Concordia in 2023 U Sports women’s hockey final:
When the team returned for the 2023-24 season, they did so with a little extra motivation. And halfway through the campaign, they’ve been the best team in the country, sitting at 13-0-0 as the only undefeated team in U Sports.
“We wanted more last year and thought we deserved more,” Fecteau added. “We arrived ready for this season. We’re competitive and gritty, and I think we have worked on the little details we need to improve.”
Competing in the six-team RSEQ conference, the Stingers have established a winning culture under the leadership of Chu and Caroline Oullette, who previously spent time as head coach. They’ve often set the tone through pre-season trips against testing opponents, allowing the group to face a top-level on-ice competition while bonding away from the rink.
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In 2023, a lengthy exhibition schedule included trips to face the Canada West champion University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in Vancouver while taking on NCAA standouts Harvard University and Dartmouth College in the United States. Concordia won every game.
While the level of the RSEQ often fluctuates year to year, the Stingers have been the top team over the last several seasons, winning the regular season in 2022-23 with a +50 goal differential and already sitting at +38 in their perfect record this season.
Yet, despite consistently being one of the top teams, Verbeek, now a fourth-year netminder, has always shared the net, one of the strengths of Concordia’s setup, which allows for a true goalie tandem, managing exhaustion on the student-athletes, a factor not often seen at other programs.
“I think it’s great, and it’s pretty ideal that we can have that setup and trust in our team, where anyone can play and step up into that role,” Verbeek said, having split the games with Arianne Leblanc this season. “Just being able to share the net and have success as a team throughout the first half is pretty special.”
With 12 games remaining in the regular season, the Stingers have expectations of a championship this season, working to become the first U Sports women’s hockey program to win two titles in three years since McGill won three out of four between 2008-2011, with teams featuring future Team Canada stars such as Mélodie Daoust, Charline Labonté, and Ann-Sophie Bettez.
PWHL a clear next step
While Fecteau focuses on winning another RSEQ and U Sports title in her final season with Concordia, she has her sights set on transitioning to the professional game as soon as possible.
Ahead of her senior year, the two-way forward signed with Nick Riopel of Propulsion Hockey, the same agent representing Team Canada and PWHL Montreal netminder Ann-Renée Desbiens, eyeing a potential PWHL opportunity in 2024-25.
“It’s fun that women’s hockey is now at this point. We have agents, we can play pro hockey, and we can make money while playing hockey,” Fecteau said. “I try not to think about it too much because it could stress me out, but it is exciting.”
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At the same time, the move to the next level wouldn’t be foreign for the Saint-Odilon-de-Cranbourne, Que., native, after spending the summer training with Hockey Canada’s national women’s team.
For Fecteau, who won Hockey Canada’s 2023 Isobel Gathorne-Hardy Award — awarded to a women’s hockey player in Canada who displays values, leadership and personal traits representing the broader women’s hockey community — jumping to the next level seems the logical step.
“I want to enjoy all the moments I have left here at Concordia, it’s been some of the best years of my life,” Fecteau said, ahead of attending PWHL Montreal’s opening game with her teammates on Jan. 13, which streams live on CBC Sports and cbcsports.ca. “I’m really happy that we have this option now, and I’m grateful for everyone who worked for this opportunity.”
Around the U Sports world
After a hiatus for the holidays, U Sports returns with a full weekend of games on Jan. 5, with the leadup to the 2024 U Sports winter season championships.
Several U Sports teams competed in exhibition games between Christmas and New Year, including men’s hockey games against NCAA DI competition, with the University of Windsor defeating Bowling Green University 5-1 and the University of Ottawa falling 5-1 to St. Lawrence University.
The highlight of the holiday U Sports exhibition schedule was Aaliyah Edwards’ homecoming game with the University of Connecticut Huskies, as they defeated the Toronto Metropolitan University Bold 111-34 in Toronto in December.