The University of Alberta Pandas celebrate a milestone this season. The Pandas organization was founded for the 1997-98 season, during a time of growth for women's hockey. Women's hockey joined the roster of Olympic sports for the 1998 games and brought increased attention to the sport. This increased attention lead to women's hockey as a national sport in the CIS instead of being simply a regionally based sport. This is the atmosphere in which the University of Alberta Pandas played their first games. Since that first season, the Pandas have created an impressive tradition of excellence on and off the ice.
The first year the Pandas competed in the Canada West Conference, they joined five other teams in a Championship tournament.The Pandas went on to win the tournament against the University of Manitoba in overtime. Their tournament victory made them the first Canada West Conference champions and earned them a berth in the first CIS national tournament. The Pandas finished in fifth place.
The following year saw the Canada West Conference expand to seven teams, including the Pandas, with the addition of Regina. The Pandas finished second in Canada West conference play based on goal differential, but Alberta went on to defeat first-place Calgary for the Canada West title and secure a return trip to the CIS national finals. The Pandas finished second in their second trip to the CIS finals, losing to defending champion Concordia in the finals.
The Pandas went on to improve the results of their first two years by not only making it back to the CIS National Championship (through winning their third straight Canada West title) but also winning their first national championship. Not a bad beginning for a program just three years old!
The Pandas have continued to build on early successes. They have added six more national championships (for a total of seven), and that makes them the team in the CIS with the most national titles. In fact, the Pandas are the only Canada West team with more than one CIS National Championship. They are the only team to win three CIS National titles in a row, and the only team to win five titles in six years.
The Pandas have made 14 appearances at the CIS national championships throughout their history, and their seven titles give them one win for every two appearance against the very best teams in the country. There are few teams able boast such an impressive statistic.
The disparity in national honours has something to do with the fact the University of Alberta Pandas have won an incredible 12 Canada West titles. Numerically speaking, that translates to the Pandas winning the conference title more than 50% of the time throughout their history.The Pandas remain the only team to win consecutive Canada West titles, and their longest streak is from 2001-02 to 2007-08. The University of Alberta Pandas have proven themselves to be the dominant team in the Canada West conference.
However, the last several years have yielded a more diverse group of Canada West Champions. Several programs, including UBC, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, have won their first Canada West titles since the 2008-09 season. The greater variety of Canada West Champions hints at a more competitive conference and the growth of women's hockey since the formation of the Pandas team.
The Canada West conference has also grown to include the Mount Royal Cougars (since the 2012-13 season), providing more competition and more opportunities for women who want to play in western Canada. The competition between teams for playoff spots, regular season titles, and championships has become more intense. The Pandas have remained a team to beat in the west, finishing at the top of the regular season standings for the last three years. Those results don't always mean titles, but they certainly do put a bullseye on the Pandas hockey program as the one to beat.
As the Pandas start their 20th season, they'll look to continue their winning ways and add to their accolades on the ice. However, the program's on-ice success is not the only reason to admire the Pandas hockey program. The program, players, and personnel have also motivated involvement in community initiatives.
They have participated in Read-in-Week, which an event that supports and encourages literacy; they have partnered with Alberta Diabetes to raise awareness; hosted an event to promote World Girls Ice Hockey Weekend in 2015; and have hosted fundraisers for ovarian cancer, the Zebra Centre (which helps children suffering from abuse), and mental health initiatives. One the most impactful pieces of their mental health initiatives fundraiser was hearing from one of the Pandas' active players. Mental health fundraising has been more in the collective consciousness, so the Pandas (and especially Jessie Olfert) displayed a transparency which was both incredibly brave and deeply moving. Pandas' community support continues even after the hockey season ends. The Pandas were on hand to support the Zebra Centre once more in mid-June for an event titled Zoofest.
The Pandas involvement in their community was exemplified in their 2015-2016 captain, Janelle Froehler. Froehler won the Marion Hillard Award for her outstanding ability to balance academics, athletics, and community involvement. Her ability to both excel on the ice and be a positive influence in the community embodies what the Pandas program consistently works towards.
The Pandas have long been ambassadors for women's hockey. They have been ambassadors for women's hockey at the Winter Universiade, the Olympic Games, and have worked closely with Hockey Alberta and Hockey Canada. Coach Howie Draper has been an important force in growing the Pandas program and has been the only coach in its illustrious history.
The Pandas have also partnered Edmonton Hockey in an effort "to aid in developing female players in the city." As the highest level of women's hockey played in Edmonton, the Pandas will have both experience and inspiration to share with younger players. This partnership is just the latest in the Pandas commitment to growing the game of women's hockey.
Over the course of the last 19 years, the Pandas hockey program has proven itself both on and off the ice. Now, as it looks to start its 20th season on October 8th, Pandas hockey looks to celebrate with a gala event in Sept 30th. It will be a celebration of the program's history and an opportunity for a glimpse into the places Pandas hockey will go over the next 20 years.