Women’s Hockey News

Women’s Hockey

Breaking Ice: The path from U SPORTS to the PWHL

Rachel Ivay

Historically, many U SPORTS women’s hockey players have not seen the possibility of furthering their athletic careers beyond university.

However, in the last year with the creation of the Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) and its success, things are different. The PWHL provides the opportunity for a professional career in hockey to current and former U SPORTS players.

Jade Downie-Landry is an example of one of these former U SPORTS players. 

The Québec native grew up playing hockey in a boys league and by the time CÉGEP rolled around, she was interested in attending Montréal’s Dawson College to continue her education and pursue the sport. After CÉGEP, Downie-Landry was unsure of where her career in hockey would go. She says she never believed she would even play at the U SPORTS level. 

“I didn’t used to think of [playing] hockey in the long run,” said Downie-Landry. 

“I always just played because my brother played and I wanted to be just like my brother,” 

Growing up, Downie-Landry says competitive hockey for girls under the age of 14 was not as prevalent as it was compared to their male counterparts. As a result, she started off and grew up playing with the boys, by the time she reached that age she decided to stay there.

“I grew up exposed to boy’s hockey, so I didn’t know much about women’s hockey at the time,” said Downie-Landry.

“But I also just enjoyed being around the boys. I was used to it and that’s what I enjoyed.”

Downie-Landry said she never really played competitive hockey until she got to CÉGEP, which is when opportunity began to appear.

“My first year at CÉGEP, my coach was Scott Lambton. He said, ‘You know you need to start thinking about universities,’” said Downie-Landry.

Though there were options when it came to universities, Downie-Landry knew that once McGill University showed interest, it was the right choice for her.

“It was like a little girl’s dream come true,”  said Downie-Landry. 

“It was not an easy choice, but I just knew at the bottom of my heart [choosing McGill] it was the right decision.”

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Credit McGill Athletics

It was during Downie-Landry’s time at McGill that she met someone who changed her perception of women’s hockey. 

When she wondered if her career would go anywhere after university, Peter Smith, former Head Coach of McGill, offered her words of encouragement. He reminded her that she could excel if she continued to put work into the play. With that, her confidence grew. 

After six years as a Martlet, Downie-Landry eventually reached those heights in 2022 making her professional debut with the Premier Hockey Federation’s (PHF) Montréal Force. 

The league was shut down after the team’s first season, making way for the PWHL.

In the PWHL’s inaugural draft, Downie-Landry was picked in the ninth round, 52nd overall by New York.

“It's a once in a lifetime opportunity and I think we’re all doing everything we can to make it work and push the game into the right direction,” said Downie-Landry.

As the women’s hockey league’s first-ever season nears its end, it has seen record-breaking success. 

On February 16, 2024, Toronto took on Montréal at Scotiabank Arena in front of a sold-out crowd of 19,285 fans, becoming the best-attended women’s hockey game in history. 

The feat beat the record held for over a decade from the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championship preliminary round game between Canada and Finland that reached 18,013 people. 

“Everytime I play I’m at a loss for words,” said Downie-Landry. “Sometimes I’m playing and I look up and I’m like this is insane.” 

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A current U SPORT’s athlete hopes to have a similar experience to Downie-Landry in the PWHL.

Concordia Stingers’ captain Emmy Fecteau just completed her final year with her university team after bringing home  U SPORTS Gold for the second time in three years, beating the Toronto Varsity Blues 3-1 in Saskatoon.

Fecteau says since the creation of the PWHL, conversations among teammates have changed.

“My teammates are really excited that we have this opportunity, that we will be in the draft next year,” said Fecteau. 

“Growing up, my dream was to be a university player and then to win a national championship with my university team. But now it’s for sure to be a professional hockey player.” 

Fecteau’s career started when she was six years old. 

“My parents saw that I really wanted to play in a team sport,” said Fecteau. “So they sent me to hockey practice and I loved it.”

Fecteau continued her career in CÉGEP, with the Limoilou Titans. In her final year, she was scouted by the Stingers, where she would go on to lead the team as Captain.

Now Fecteau is projected to be picked in the coming 2024-2025 PWHL Draft. 

“I’m very happy we have this opportunity now,” said Fecteau.

Both Fecteau and Downie-Landry have similar advice for young girls and women who hope to one day have a career in professional hockey, and that is simply to have fun

“Don’t get caught up in the negative things about hockey,” said Downie-Landry. 

“Remember why you started playing because if you lose the fun, you lose the passion and why do we play if we’re not having fun?”