By: Monty Mosher
There are many reasons Emma Weatherbie stayed home to play hockey for the UPEI Panthers.
But maybe none was bigger than representing her home province while skating in front of family and friends. Particularly family.
Home is never far from the rink. Her younger brother Ben, almost 10, is a fixture at the UPEI games, saluting the players when times are good and not so good. The love runs both ways.
Emma's father, a champion powerlifter, has been inspirational for her off-season workouts. Her mother and younger sister are never far.
Maybe all of that would have been enough, but Weatherbie, a fifth-year senior now the captain of the Panthers, learned last winter that the Panthers would host the 2019 and 2020 U Sports national women's hockey championship in Charlottetown.
That assured her, assuming she remained healthy, a chance to finish her varsity career in a national tournament game in her hometown.
'There definitely is a buzz'
"There definitely is a buzz which makes it pretty exciting," Weatherbie said this week. "You can feel it around the city. There's times I'm up in the gym, or the grocery store, and you get stopped. People ask how the season is going and if you are looking forward to the nationals. So, it's pretty cool to know the community and the province supports us."
The Panthers have national experience in the fairly recent past. They won the AUS in 2012, making it the only time someone other than St. F.X., Saint Mary's or Moncton raised the conference banner.
But nobody from the current roster, which is relatively young, has been there.
As always, being the host entry creates some challenges. The Panthers know they are playing in mid-March and have an entire season to prepare for that first night.
But there are many little steps, from nutrition to mental preparation, that need to be taken along the way. Some of the leadership responsibility falls on the shoulders of the 22-year-old forward.
"Even compared to last year our intensity in workouts, practice and games is better," Weatherbie said. "We don't want to completely focus on it and overlook other things, but in the back of everybody's heads we know we've got to be ready for opening night at the national championship."
The downside, if there is one, is that the host berth creates an emphasis different from that of their conference opponents, who have to scrap every night to get what UPEI already has.
"Since we have all year to prep for it, we might overlook other things," said Weatherbie, a kinesiology student and academic all-Canadian. "It's nerve-wracking knowing you are the host. There is a bit of pressure to perform."
Coach Bruce Donaldson said Weatherbie is perfectly suited to her role this year.
"Emma is a true competitor," he said. "Her commitment to personal fitness is amazing and, with this commitment, comes her desire to always put the team first. She is a quiet leader who has the full support of her teammates and coaching staff. The definition of giving 100 per cent on and off the ice is Emma. It is what her character is all about."
The Panthers are 9-7-1 through 17 games and sit in a three-way tie for fourth place with Moncton and UNB. The team returns to the ice Thursday against Saint Mary's.
Spreading the message
UPEI is spreading its message across the province. They've played in Montague and Souris and they will play later this month in O'Leary.
She said it is hard to compete for attention with the men's hockey program because of the team's fan base, but the nationals have brought some profile to the women's game.
"With the nationals, people are starting to realize that women's hockey is a pretty cool game to watch and starting to get behind it. Hosting kind of opened up people's eyes about that."
Weatherbie grew up in P.E.I. minor hockey and played for Team Atlantic. She had the opportunity to leave P.E.I. to attend university.
"But ultimately I think it's a dream come true to be able to play in my home province in front of my friends and family while getting an education. As far as the hockey, I knew I was coming to a team that wasn't high in the standings the year before but they competed every game. So, I knew I'd get a chance to have an impact on the team and I knew we'd have a fighting chance every year for an AUS championship."
The goal was always to be part of an AUS championship team and move on to the nationals. She hopes the banner part can happen this year, even with the nationals already assured.
She said finding out that the team would play in the nationals in Charlottetown was a "cool moment."
But she is the lone fifth-year senior on the roster. There are only two players in their fourth year.
The team isn't necessarily built to win now. There is more of a two-year process and Weatherbie won't be around to enjoy the excitement next year.
She was honoured to be named team captain at the end of last year, knowing the team would be skating for a national championship in her final year.
"To be captain of your hometown team is a dream come true. I am vocal when needed, but I try to lead by example. I try to do that through my work ethic … and just use my experience to help the other girls. I've had five years here so I've been through a lot of highs and lows. If there's any pointers I can give them I'm definitely happy to share. The attitude here is great so it makes it easy to lead."
When it's all over, win or lose, Ben will give her a high-five. That will complete something pretty special.
"We kind of stated this journey together. And he's going to end it with me, too."
(Monty Mosher is an award-winning sportswriter in Nova Scotia with more than 30 years covering university sports in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com)