The University of Alberta Pandas know that they are going to Thunder Bay, Ont., with targets on their backs.
The women’s curling team not only enters the U SPORTS/Curling Canada Curling Championships as reigning champions of the tournament, but of international university curling as gold medalists in the 2017 Winter Universiade. But despite coming in to the Championships with recent success and high expectations, the Pandas know that the dynamic of this tournament is different.
“Coming into nationals, it is a new team,” explains Pandas second Kate Goodhelpsen. “We’re taking it as a new start. There are people (who are) kind of expecting us to ‘come back,’ but we’re not putting that pressure on ourselves.”
A new team should not be mistaken for lack of experience. Goodhelpsen herself recently returned from claiming a bronze medal for Canada at the world junior curling championships in Gangneung, South Korea. The opportunity to represent Canada was brought on by a gold medal victory for Alberta in the 2017 Canadian junior women’s curling championship. Each of these honours were shared with Pandas skip Kristen Streifel. The mix of national and international success and experience makes the Pandas stand out.
“I think (previous experience) gives us a big advantage because we’re so comfortable with each other and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” said Streifel. “We’re able to really help build each other up on the ice. And it’s always really exciting to regroup with some players that I’ve played with in the past and have the opportunity to go for another championship with them.”
The team that came away with the U SPORTS title in 2016 was lead by none other than two-time world junior curling gold medalist Kelsey Rocque. Her championship run with the Pandas granted her the opportunity to represent Canada and the University of Alberta at the Universiade in Almaty, Kazakhstan last month. Her global experience is yet another testament to the strength of Alberta’s curling program.
“At 18 years old, I didn’t really imagine that at 22 I would have represented our country three times,” Rocque beams. “It also goes to show the depth in our program. I think every single Panda in our program has worn a maple leaf on their back. That’s pretty incredible to think about.”
The international successes play a major part in the allure of the Pandas program, something that is not lost on them.
“Any time you have the option to put a maple leaf on your back and represent your country, if that doesn’t bring some pride to you, I don’t know what can,” says Garry Coderre, the long-time head coach of the Pandas curling team, who has been involved in many international successes with the school and its curlers. “There was a little bit more pride involved when you’re not only wearing the red and white of Canada, but you’re also wearing the green and gold of the University of Alberta.”
Coming off of Rocque and Coderre’s recent successes, the new Pandas set their sights on Thunder Bay, Ont., and the U SPORTS Championships with the hopes of building upon their already illustrious careers. However, the core of their chances remains the same: it is built on a foundation of excellence built by the University of Alberta curling program over the years.
Aside from the support of their athletics program and the high academic standard of the University of Alberta, which all of the student-athletes take the fullest advantage of and excel in, the Pandas are the home of great influence and experience. In having figures such as Rocque carrying the flag – both for Alberta women’s curling and Team Canada at the FISU Games as the delegation’s opening ceremony flag-bearer– this year’s squad finds great inspiration in her achievements and accolades while moving onto the national university stage.
“I’ve always idolized Kelsey,” Goodhelpsen says. “Being able to have a role model like her when I was young, I just wanted to grow up and be like Kelsey. I wanted to win those world juniors. I want to be that team that everyone sees and is always winning and super competitive, and just nice people, too.”
“Kelsey Rocque has been very unique; a very, very unique person,” Goderre explains. “To say that she didn’t have some influence into the program would be silly, because she has set a bar that’s pretty high. But the athletes that are following her have just as much capability as what Kelsey has. I feel that the team I’m going with this year, if all the stars line up, we have some very talented people on this team, and I feel that they will be able to carry forward with a tradition that the U of A Pandas represent, not only their school, but Canada West. And hopefully in the future, Canada again.”
Of Coderre, the confidence in his curlers is a testament to his guidance as an ever-present and influential force in the program. Seeing the program’s successes first hand on so many levels has given him a great deal of experience, one that has put veteran coach and the program in the limelight and drawn considerable attention to the university for young, aspiring curlers. Those who play under him now sing his praises as an important figure in their lives.
“Gary has been one of the most inspirational and influential men I’ve ever worked with, both as a coach and as a person,” says Streifel. “I’ve really learned so much on the ice from him, but also just how I represent myself and my character as an athlete and as an individual too.
For all her influence, Rocque still attributes her successes and approach to curling to Coderre.
“I can’t say enough about (Coderre),” says Rocque. “He has been with, me specifically, through thick and thin and the rest of the girls as well. He is the most calming influence and the biggest motivator. He inspires all of us athletes every single day just to work that little bit harder. He gives us the confidence we need heading into a big event, and I think the bottom line is he just really, truly believes in us.”
With their sights set on another U SPORTS banner, the Pandas enters the season’s final competition brimming with confidence and familiarity with one another, while noting the skill-level of U SPORTS curling and the heightened competition that they will face.
“The U SPORTS level is definitely being recognized on a higher scale right now, and more of the elite players from juniors are also putting a lot of effort into U SPORTS,” explains Streifel, who joined the Pandas in the 2016 title run as an alternate. “I think the experience from that will really carry forward into playing a lot of these other university teams, especially when we’ve seen a lot of the players at other national events and we’re very comfortable competing against them.”
Although no longer wearing the green and gold, Rocque continues to have the utmost confidence in and respect for the Pandas as they enter the national competition looking to build upon the success that she helped bring to the program.
“I think they’re going to do really well,” she says. “They’ve got experience at the international level recently. I think that’s a huge part of it. I really, truly believe that the U SPORTS level is an amazing bridge gap between the juniors women’s or men’s game. The level of play is just that little bit higher, but these girls are very much capable of defending that title.”
The 2017 U SPORTS/Curling Canada Curling Championships take place Mar. 18-22 at the Fort William Curling Club in Thunder Bay.