Press release: University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada;
Home of the Golden Bears and the Pandas
Pandas Hockey: European Vacation Canada West Communications (July 5, 2010)
As seven-time CIS women’s hockey champions, the University of Alberta Pandas are used to traveling and even winning, but this was one journey unlike any other in the team’s vaunted history.
Howie Draper, the only head coach the Pandas have ever known since joining CIS in 1997, recently embarked on an 18-day overseas mission to explore new culture, face unknown opponents and gain experience that went far beyond ice hockey. Accompanying the squad were 23 players, six of his staff and nine family members who decided to join in on the fun.
But that was just the final reward in a process that began much, much earlier.
“Roger Bastien contacted us to see if we’d be interested in touring Europe to play some hockey,” said Draper, thrice named CIS Coach of the Year. “We started the planning process, probably in about February or March of 2009. The travel, accommodations and competition were all planned by Roger. We planned the fundraising, essentially, and co-ordinated the travel party on our end.”
On the ice the team met with instant success, against the London-based Slough Phantoms during a four-day stop in London, England after flying in to town on May 4th. Trips through towns large and small in Belgium and France followed, with Canada’s favourite past time taking less of a role than it usually would for such a historically successful franchise.
“We won all eight of our games, all pretty one-sided. Hounslow, outside London, had two NCAA grads playing as well as an ACAC graduate, so they were likely one of the strongest teams that we played,” Draper commented.
The final days were spent at a whirlwind four-day, six-game tournament in Cergy-Pontoise, near Paris. Billeting with local families allowed the Pandas to learn about true French culture and saved a few dollars for post-secondary student-athletes who did all they could saving, fundraising and sacrificing to make the trip happen.
Draper remarked, “I think the opportunity for our players to live with French families was an incredible experience. The bond that they built with the families was pretty cool to see.”
So, really… how did it all happen?
The idea was just that to start, somewhat of a long shot dream, if you will. Making a 38-member, 6,800 km overseas trip happen for a post-secondary hockey team is probably about as daunting a task as Draper has ever faced, dating back to his playing days with the Alberta Golden Bears in the late 1980s. But once the seed was planted those involved went to work along with the school’s Athletics Department, the team’s Alumni Association and several student-athletes to start exploring possibilities.
“Our alumni organization funded half of the trip, $30 000, which was instrumental in making it all possible and affordable,” Draper noted. “The girls raised funds through the Adopt-an-Athlete program, hockey pools, 50/50s and then had to pay some money out of pocket as well, mainly for food and entertainment while there.
Draper himself did have prior worldly hockey experience, winning a bronze medal with the Golden Bears at the 1987 World Student Games (FISU) in Poprad, Czechoslovakia, which is now part of Slovakia. He was also named MVP of the New South Wales Super League in 1992, when he acted as player-coach for a team based in Sydney, Australia.
Like any new experience, Draper planned things the best he could and had hoped his players would be more challenged by the competition. That part simply never developed. Draper said the difference in ability is still quite vast, but noted that the gap would close if only players were challenged to do so.
“There was definitely a drop in skill as compared to hockey at the CIS level. Having said that, I felt that all of the teams were a little surprised at the speed and level at which we play. I don’t really think any of them would have had a chance to experience women’s hockey being played at that level. Many of the spectators and teams commented on how amazed they were that females could play the game at the level that we were playing.”
When asked the obvious question, Coach Draper made did not hesitate for a second, saying he felt that the time and money to make it all happen were well worth it for everyone involved.
“It was a phenomenal experience. Although the level of hockey was relatively low, it was a unique experience playing against teams that approach the game in a slightly different way than we do. It was fantastic to experience the European cultures and meet people from a variety of different countries,” he said, adding, “I remember my European trips with the Bears with great fondness and my memories of those experiences remain the most vivid to this day. I wanted the players to have the same sort of opportunity.”
Asked if the team will take on this kind of adventure again in the future, Draper noted that enthusiasm must be tempered somewhat because of the shear commitment and costs involved. “Ultimately, if we can do something of a similar nature every two or three years, that would be ideal,” he stated, pointing out that the U of A is not the first CIS women’s team to go on such a trek. “Concordia did similar trips in the past and a number of years ago Guelph traveled to Europe. We’ve had a few Canada West teams express an interest in doing something similar.”
When prompted to find a single highlight of the 18-day journey, Draper struggled to narrow it down, but ultimately decided that learning some important history stood out most. “I really enjoyed visiting some of the historically significant destinations there, particularly from World War I at Vimy Ridge and World War II at Juno Beach.
I think a strong nod can be made for the trip that three of us made to Abby Road in New Westminster as well.”
The Pandas bench boss was somewhat surprised how outside sources can influence perception, as he relayed thoughts about French people and culture. “We always hear that people in France are arrogant, but I found it to be quite the opposite. The people that I experienced were very friendly, welcoming and happy to assist tourists, particularly when trying to speak in the broken form of French that some of us were trying to speak.”