Hayleigh Craig’s journey to USports ran through the National Women’s U18 Championship

Hayleigh Craig of the University of Alberta Pandas is now a three-year veteran on the team and a mainstay on one of the top teams in the country, as the Pandas were listed third in the nation amongst USport teams in the most recent rankings on October 24.

They are looking to end a seven-year drought, and bring home their ninth USports national championship to add to their already record leading eight since the Golden Path Trophy was handed out for the first time in 1998.

But before Craig was tasked with helping the Pandas achieve these goals, she was part of the team selected to represent Alberta at the 2019 National Women’s U18 Championship in Morden and Winkler, Manitoba.

“I remember it went by really fast,” Craig recalls of that tournament in which she played in all four games as Team Alberta finished sixth. “We didn’t do as well as we wanted in that tournament, but we had a great group of girls, so it was a really good learning experience.”

The tournament features the best players from across Canada, something that Craig said really helped her prepare for the university level.

“I learned a ton. You go from playing AAA or in one of the school leagues, where there’s a little more variety of skill level to playing for your province where it’s best-on-best,” Craig said. “You have to adjust quickly in a tournament like that. You have to play faster, think faster and I think it’s a really good steppingstone for those looking to move onto the next level. A lot of the girls from our team as well as others are now playing in USports or the NCAA and I think a lot of that has to do with all the tips and tricks we learned from that tournament and the coaching we got, and getting shown a professional environment such as living in a hotel for a week and having to come together quickly with a bunch of people from different backgrounds.”

Craig wasn’t the only member from Team Alberta to make her way to the Pandas. Three other members from that 2019 squad – Bree Kennedy, Natalie Keiser and Jaydnn Morden – also are suiting up for the University of Alberta.

“It’s super cool,” Craig said. “At that time, I think Bree and I were the only ones who had committed, but obviously the others followed suit. It’s nice having the familiarity with them and made the adjustment at the university level a bit easier. We played together at the Canada Winter Games too, so I’ve spent a lot of time with them, and it’s been a really great experience.”

Coincidentally, the 2023 version of Team Alberta that will be competing in the National Women’s U18 Championship November 5-11 in Dawson Creek, B.C., took on Craig’s Pandas in an exhibition match to help determine Team Alberta’s final cuts ahead of this year’s tournament.

“This year I noticed they were big and strong. They had some really skilled girls as well, but stepping onto the ice for the first time with them I really noticed how strong they were,” she said. “They were really hard on the puck and sometimes you don’t really find that with 16 or 17-year-old girls. Hopefully they have some success this year and bring a gold medal back to Alberta.”

Team Alberta will begin its tournament against Quebec. The team’s full schedule can be found below:

November 5 Quebec vs Alberta 4:00 pm
November 6 Atlantic vs Alberta 10:00 am
November 7 Alberta vs Saskatchewan 4:00 pm
November 9 Quarterfinals TBA
November 10 Semifinals TBA
November 11 Bronze Medal Game 2:00 pm
November 11 Gold Medal Game 7:00 pm