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UBC Thunderbirds Coach Graham Thomas on Wednesday, March 22.

VANCOUVER, B.C – A fantastic UBC Thunderbirds season, playoffs, and national championship tournament finished up on Sunday, March 19 in Napanee, Ontario. The Thunderbirds capped off the 2016/2017 campaign with a bronze medal at USports Nationals. They defeated hosts, Queen’s in the quarterfinals before a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to McGill in the semifinals. UBC rallied the next day, and beat Concordia 2-0 to take a medal back to Vancouver.

UBC Thunderbirds Coach, Graham Thomas is happy with his team’s performance.

“Really proud, really proud,” said Thomas. “You’re right, it wasn’t what we wanted ideally. It had a different feel to it. We competed really hard. I guess winning that very last game on the very last possible day you could play, versus losing last year. I know it’s a bronze, not a silver and not a gold. It still had a different feel. It had a very rewarding feel for our seniors, and for our players to finish up on a real positive note.”

With eight graduating seniors, this was the year that UBC really wanted to win a national championship, but that’s also the goal of seven other competing teams. UBC was seeded first, followed by the three conference winners across Canada. The heavily stacked McGill Martlets were seeded fourth, which was a bit of a head scratcher.

UBC and McGill played a terrific game. There was back and forth action, a specialty teams battle, physical intensity, and brilliant saves from goalkeepers, Amelia Boughn (UBC), and Tricia Deguire (McGill). If you weren’t closely following the tournament, you might of thought it was a gold medal game. It was not. It was a chance to go to the gold medal game.

Having two conference winners playing in a semifinal game, with the other bracket featuring two conference runners-up playing in the other semifinal, makes no sense. You should be rewarding the Canada West and RSEQ winners. They should have played the opposite runners-up. UBC vs Concordia, and McGill vs Alberta, this didn’t happen.

“The format needs to change to have something to address what happened, said Thomas. “They (McGill) should have been a two or three seed. The semifinals, we had the Canada West Champion, and the Quebec Champion playing in a semifinal knockout. On the other side, we had the two runners-up from the exact same two conferences playing on the other side.”

The USports National Championship tournament seeding below shows the conference winners, 1-4 and the runners-up, 4-8. The teams in BOLD all won quarterfinals games. If a re-seeding had taken place before the semifinals, UBC and McGill would not have faced each other in the semifinals.

1. UBC Thunderbirds (Canada West Champions)

2. Guelph Gryphons (OUA Champions)

3. Saint Mary’s Huskies (AUS Champions)

4. McGill Martlets (RSEQ Champions)

5. StFX X-Women (AUS Finalists)

6. Alberta Pandas (Canada West Finalists)

7. Concordia Stingers (RSEQ Finalists)

8. Queen’s Gaels (Hosts)

“It was setup that way, and it makes sense,” said Thomas. “You keep the integrity of the pool together, but they do need to have an exception in there. Not always are you going to have the same two conferences runners-up and champions making the top four. If that does happen, there should be a re-seeding. It does not make any sense to have the two champions play. You earn the right to be a champion in your league. For us it would have been Concordia. Then if you look at it our way, we get rewarded for being the champion and a top seed, versus now having to play McGill, which arguably could of been the gold medal game.”

Essentially it was busted brackets after exciting upset quarterfinals victories by Alberta, and Concordia. A great achievement for the Pandas and Stingers programs. It shows that anyone can be upset, but then having a 6 vs 7 in the semifinals, that’s bonkers.

“Again, you can’t go back,” said Thomas. “I’m not complaining, but I do think they need to look at it in future years. It makes sense.”

UBC came into the tournament with a 23-4-1 regular season record, and a 4-2 record in the playoffs. A team that was peaking all season, mowing down the competition, and then facing a few speed bumps in the playoffs. Those bumps (and bruises) tend to take a toll when you are always facing your opponents top game. UBC had injuries at nationals as did every other team. They also had a flu bug that struck several players at an inopportune time.

“It ran through five or six of our players,” revealed Thomas. “We weren’t able to play (Mairead) Bast very much. Her injury was catching up to her. She didn’t play in the bronze, and we she didn’t play very much in the semifinal game. We ran into some injuries, but I think a lot of teams are that way. I give our group a ton of credit for just playing. I thought we played really well.”

It’s a long haul from start to finish. Players get injuries, rehab, and sometimes play through injuries choosing to fully recover after the season and playoffs. UBC was hit hard by injuries all season. It’s possible that a healthy Thunderbirds team may have had more success at nationals.

“I think it did affect us,” admitted Thomas. “At the same time, it made us stronger. It’s a fine line. We got a lot of other people in there who got a lot of valuable game time experience. It’s hard to say that’s what it was for sure. So much has to go right in order to be national champions. In one game knockouts, and how long our season goes, so much needs to go right.”

Going into next season, UBC should be primed for another year of positive results, and more success on and off the ice. Eight seniors will be moving on, but they have definitely left their mark on the Thunderbirds. The next wave will have learned from some of the best players to play for UBC. Getting back to nationals will be tough, but you sure wouldn’t want to bet against UBC with the way the program has developed and thrived.

“We feel confident in our returning group,” said Thomas. “That we have it in us to get back there again, and to have a year similar to what we had this year, but it is going to be a challenge. We’re going to be gunned after even more for being back to back Canada West champs, and being bronze medalists, and medalling back to back.”

UBC wants to be a team that’s mentioned in the same breath as successful programs like McGill, and Alberta. They want to build a team that goes all the way and wins gold. They’re certainly knocking on the door, and others have noticed. UBC has become a university with excellent education opportunities, and a top women’s hockey program.

“It really has changed the scale of our program now,” said Thomas. “I credit that to the players that are in this program, and have been in this program. They’ve changed the culture here. It’s a winning culture now. We’re a program that’s going to be challenging for a championship or a national championship every year. It was a big statement year. It’s really exciting, it’s really gratifying. I’m very proud of the girls and what they’ve done.”

As the Thunderbirds prepare for exams, warmer weather, and exciting offseason plans. They’ll still have a focus on how they can get back to the big dance, and win the ultimate prize.

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UBC Thunderbirds goalie, Amelia Boughn in action vs Queen’s Gaels on Thursday, March 16.

VANCOUVER, B.C – It’s going to be a marquee matchup on Saturday afternoon at the USports Nationals, when the UBC Thunderbirds take on the McGill Martlets. The winner will earn a spot in the championship final on Sunday at the Strathcona Paper Centre, in Napanee, Ontario.

Thursday’s quarterfinals saw the number one ranked Thunderbirds dispatch the hosts, Queen’s Gaels with a 2-1 win. McGill’s Gabrielle Davidson scored a pair of goals to help the number four seed Martlets defeat StFX 3-1.

This will be the third meeting between UBC and McGill in the last year. The Thunderbirds won 4-2 in a quarterfinals game last year at nationals. It was an intense, and physical game that had a lot of feeling. UBC also defeated McGill 3-1, during a preseason tournament this past fall.

UBC Coach, Graham Thomas is expecting a far different game on Saturday.

“There a different team than we saw in September,” said Thomas. “They didn’t have (Gabrielle) Davidson, and (Mélodie) Daoust in the lineup. They’re back ,and their seniors are really strong players for them. We’ll have to be very sharp. They’ve got a strong freshman goalie (Tricia Deguire). It’s going to be two really good teams going after it. Great program, and we’re excited for the challenge.”

Neither coach wants to provide bulletin board material for the other team. While a rivalry might be brewing, McGill Coach, Peter Smith wasn’t taking any bait.

“Yeah, we play them three times in around a year,” said Smith when reached by phone. “We’re happy to play them again. They’re a good team, and we like playing good teams. It’s all about what happens on Saturday. We’ll be ready to go, and they’ll be ready to go.”

Smith isn’t concerned with the Thunderbirds number one ranking they’ve had since October. McGill won’t be in awe by the Thunderbirds accomplishments. Once the puck drops, rankings and awards make no difference.

“It’s similar to playing any team,” admitted said Smith. “We want to be prepared and be ready to go. We don’t spend a lot of time looking at rankings and seeding.”

McGill’s high-powered offence features 2017 Player of the Year finalist, Mélodie Daoust, Olivia Atkinson, Marie-Philip Lavoie, Gabrielle Davidson, and rookie Jade Downie-Landry. Martlets goalkeeper, Tricia Deguire was named 2017 USports Rookie of the Year. McGill is stacked, and will look to play a high-tempo game. Playing a full sixty-minutes remains a question for a team that’s still very young.

“I think the hallmark of our team, we want to play fast, and play with good structure,” said Smith. “We need to stick to the plan from start to finish, and play fast. We’re a fast team and that’s what we want to do.”

UBC will feature their own dangerous offence. Defender, Kelly Murray was named to the All-Canadian First Team, and Cassandra Vilgrain was named to the All-Canadian Second Team. Captain, Stephanie Schaupmeyer, Nicole Saxvik, and Kathleen Cahoon are also ones to watch. Saxvik scored the wining goal vs Queen’s with 2:43 left in the third period.

“They’re a very good team,” said Saxvik, when asked about playing McGill. “It’s going to be battle. We have to do our homework. Hopefully the puck will go our way.”

The McGill program has a long storied history, and a high prestige across Canada. They’ve always been a program that other universities want to emulate with multiple national championships. UBC is looking to take the next step with their first national championship.

“It’s two really competitive programs,” said Thomas. “McGill is one of the most decorated programs in Canada. They want to keep their dynasty going. You have a program like ours, up and coming, and we want to accomplish what they have accomplished.” 

The Thunderbirds will be looking to get some rest for goalkeeper, Amelia Boughn who battled food poisoning on the eve of the tournament. Boughn toughed it out, and made 17 saves vs Queen’s. She earned praise while playing on adrenaline, and not much else.

“We’re really happy to get some food and fluids into her,” said Thomas of Boughn. “She’s just incredible. Yeah, it was great to see. It was her call. She’s had a quarter of a bagel, and a little bit of chicken noodle soup, and not a lot of sleep. It’s important to give her some rest.”

UBC and McGill will be looking to see which team can post a ‘bagel’ in net, and which team can turn up the offence. It’s going to be an exciting game with two fantastic programs battling for a spot in the USports Championship game.

USports National Championship Schedule. All Times: ET

Friday, March 17

11:00 a.m. Quarter-final 3: No.3 Saint Mary’s vs No.6 Alberta

3:00 p.m. Quarter-final 4: No. 2 Guelph vs. No. 7 Concordia

7:00 p.m. Consolation 1: Queen’s vs. StFX

Saturday, March 18

11:00 a.m. Consolation 2: Loser QF 3 vs. Loser QF 4

3:00 p.m. Semifinal 1: McGill vs UBC

7:00 p.m. Semifinal 2: Winner QF 3 vs. Winner QF 4

Sunday, March 19

11:00 a.m. 5th-place game

3:00 a.m. Bronze

7:00 p.m. Final

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New York Riveters, Kaleigh Fratkin (L) and Tatiana Rafter (R) in Newark, New Jersey on March 2.

VANCOUVER, B.C – The UBC Thunderbirds are back at USports Nationals, and the number one ranked team are looking to bring back gold to the University of British Columbia. A feat that has never been accomplished by a UBC hockey program. The Thunderbirds have achieved an unprecedented amount of success under Coach Graham Thomas, Assistants Mike Sommer, Dom Di Rocco, and Pasco Valana.

New York Riveters players, Kaleigh Fratkin, and Tatiana Rafter have a close connection to the UBC Thunderbirds. Rafter represented UBC from 2010-2015. Several of the current Thunderbirds played alongside her. Fratkin hails from Burnaby, B.C. and skates with the Thunderbirds during the summer to stay active. To see UBC competing at the highest level in university hockey is quite the accomplishment.

“I think it’s unbelievable,” said Fratkin. “Growing up I had the opportunity to see UBC in my back yard, and their program was one of the worst at the university level. I actually knew Graham Thomas because he was at Syracuse at the time, and he was actually doing some recruiting. He ended up leaving and going to UBC. It was actually amazing to see the turnaround that he did, and his ability to recruit the top end players, and make UBC one of the best programs at the Canadian university level.”

The 24 year-old Fratkin, is in her second NWHL season. The pair have a soft spot for UBC. Rafter contributed 61 goals and 55 assists during her time with UBC. She led the Thunderbirds in scoring during the 2013, 2014, and 2015 seasons. Also, the first three seasons with Coach Graham Thomas behind the bench. Rafter has watched a massive shift in approach, positivity, and skill since her inaugural season.

“It was crazy,” said Rafter. “When Graham came in. I had two coaches prior to him, my first and second year. He came in my third year, and we had two (2-24) wins the season before. We only changed three players in our personnel. He just really implemented the whole philosophy in believing in ourselves. It was just building confidence within the program, and helping build a legacy. I thought that was really cool, over my time there seeing the changes from my first year, all the way to my fifth year.”

UBC is locked in as the number one seed at the Strathcona Paper Centre, Napanee, OntarioThey’ll take on the hosts, Queen’s Gaels on Thursday at 7:00 PM ET. It’s going to be a different tournament than last years in Calgary, where UBC won silver. UBC is the team to beat, they’ll be getting every opponents top game. They won’t be able to sneak up on anyone. The pressure is certainly there, but is there an advantage as a number one seed?

“Yes, and no,” said Fratkin.”This biggest thing in that situation is every team you play against is going to want to beat you. I think the good thing playing at the university, and college level. Regardless of how you do in the regular season it doesn’t really matter. It comes down to that playoff side. The great thing about being a top seed, you kind of take on this responsibility and ownership to always bring your best game forward, and play every game like it’s going to be a playoff game, and just have that expectation that you want to win, you want to be a winning team. UBC has become a winning organization. To see them at the top seed, is awesome.”

It takes more than just players to turn around a hockey program. You can have the most talented players available, but if they are all going in different directions, it doesn’t work. The current UBC coaching staff have brought in structure, a positive mind-set, and a belief that anything is possible with hard work, and determination. UBC sticks up for one and other, and plays together, always team first. The scoring, defence, and special teams all come as a result of preparation, and putting in shift after shift. If UBC had been at that next level that they are at right now. Fratkin may have chosen UBC over Boston University.

“To be honest if UBC was as good as a program when I was going through the recruiting process, I could have possibly gone the Canadian route. For me, it was kind of a no brainer to go the NCAA level. At the time the growth of women’s hockey, especially at the Canadian level wasn’t as strong. It was a no brainer to go to the NCAA. Now you see a lot of girls from the NCAA going to CIS (USports). You see a lot of girls staying in the Canadian universities. UBC’s an unbelievable school. The fact that now their program is strong, it’s kind of a no brainer. I would have stayed locally if I had the opportunity, because UBC’s one of the best schools in the world,” said Fratkin.

The 25 year-old, Rafter has kept in close contact with her former teammates, and she’s sending happy thoughts. The Riveters prepare to battle the Buffalo Beauts, in the 2017 Isobel Cup Playoffs. The semifinal game takes place on St. Patrick’s Day at Barnabas Health Hockey House, in Newark, New Jersey. Fratkin and Rafter will prepare while keeping an eye on UBC’s progress at USports Nationals.

“I’ve been tweeting at some of the girls,” revealed Rafter. “I’m really proud to see where the program has come. It’s really great to see, players that when I was in my final year, and they were in their first year. I’m really proud to see their growth, and how they’ve developed to leaders.”

When Fratkin and Rafter return to Vancouver in the summer they could very well see an addition to the UBC trophy case. The Thunderbirds are a testament of what can happen when you have all the right pieces, in place at the right time. All that’s left to achieve is a USports National Championship and that starts on Thursday.

Team (Playoff Finish: Regular Season/Playoffs) 

1. UBC Thunderbirds (Canada West Champions: 23-4-1 / 4-2)

2. Guelph Gryphons (OUA Champions: 20-3-1 / 5-1)

3. Saint Mary’s Huskies (AUS Champions: 18-3-3 / 4-2)

4. McGill Martlets (RSEQ Champions: 16-4-0 / 4-1)

5. StFX X-Women (AUS Finalists: 16-8-0 / 5-3)

6. Alberta Pandas (Canada West Finalists: 21-4-3 / 3-2)

7. Concordia Stingers (RSEQ Finalists: 10-9-1 / 2-2)

8. Queen’s Gaels (Hosts: 14-8-2 / 1-2)

USports National Championship Schedule. All Times: ET

Thursday, March 16

3:00 p.m. Quarter-final 1: No.4 McGill vs. No.5 StFX

7:00 p.m. Quarter-final 2: No.1 UBC vs No.8 Queen’s

Friday, March 17

11:00 a.m. Quarter-final 3: No.3 Saint Mary’s vs No.6 Alberta

3:00 p.m. Quarter-final 4: No. 2 Guelph vs. No. 7 Concordia

7:00 p.m. Consolation 1: Loser QF 1 vs. Loser QF 2

Saturday, March 18

11:00 a.m. Consolation 2: Loser QF 3 vs. Loser QF 4

3:00 p.m. Semifinal 1: Winner QF 1 vs. Winner QF 2

7:00 p.m. Semifinal 2: Winner QF 3 vs. Winner QF 4

Sunday, March 19

11:00 a.m. 5th-place game

3:00 a.m. Bronze

7:00 p.m. Final