Former Team Canada goalie Danielle Dube left hockey 10 years ago, and has since become a firefighter and had two kids. Yet here she is now at the age of 36, back in the game as a university freshman on an extraordinary Cinderella team taking a stab at its first Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championship.
Before this season, Dube had approached the University of British Columbia women's team, just hoping to pitch in as an assistant coach. But they convinced the Vancouver native to become a UBC student and try out for a team that was making changes after finishing last year a dismal 1-21-2. The veteran netminder became part of a remarkable turnaround season in which UBC went 17-7-4 in the regular season and upset the reigning national champion Calgary Dinos to win the Canada West title, an opponent led by Olympic star Hayley Wickenheiser. Now in Toronto making UBC's first-ever appearance in the CIS women's hockey championship tournament, this firefighter and her teammates don't feel at all intimated in their maiden trip.
Dube last played hockey in 2003 for the Long Beach Ice Dogs, a men's pro team in the West Coast Hockey League. She had played for Canada on and off between 1994 and 2002 while also jetting off to tryouts and stints with every men's pro squad that would give her a shot. She had come close to making both the 1998 and 2002 Olympic teams along the way, but it just didn't pan out. She eventually left the game and started fighting fires, married a guy she had met at the fire academy, and they had a son and a daughter, now 7 and 5 respectively.
Ironically, it was a conversation with the coach of the Calgary Dinos, former Canadian teammate and three-time Olympian Danielle Goyette, that first put the idea in Dube's mind about university hockey. As the two were doing a little coaching at a Hockey Canada development camp last year, Goyette suggested Dube approach new incoming UBC coach Graham Thomas. The two even laughed a little about the idea of the goalie getting back between the pipes.
"I even joked around with Hayley [Wickenheiser] too – she said 'Hey, you should play, and then YOU can be the oldest in the league,'" said Dube, who is 13 years older than the next-oldest UBC player and even born before the 32-year-old coach. "Luckily, my job as a firefighter keeps me in decent shape, and while I wasn't really in goaltending shape, I was able to come into training camp and start working from a good place."
Thomas must admit, he wasn't sure at first that a 36-year-old taking online courses was going to fit in with a squad of young university women. Her kids often hang out with the team, and Dube will laugh at her teammates' choices of music. But otherwise, they say the age thing rarely comes up.
"I was a little nervous about it at first, but she showed right away that she was the right character and the perfect fit for this team," Thomas said. "She rarely speaks up – she did it once in the dressing room after a playoff loss to Regina – but when she does, it's very impactful."
For a UBC team that had never notched more than eight wins in a year, Dube eventually earned the starting gig and went 11-5 in her starts, had a 1.67 goals-against average, a .973 save percentage and was named a first-team conference all-star. There were times when her firefighting shift ran as late as 4 a.m., but the competitive Dube still burned to play in games the next day.
"She's brought so much experience. She'll say something amazing and all 23 eyes will be on her," said UBC senior captain Kaylee Chanakos. "She's been with Team Canada and knows what she's talking about. She's had a really calming effect on us. The way this group has come together this year and turned things around has been really unique."
No. 4-seeded UBC joins the top-seed Montreal, St. FX (2), Queen's (3), Calgary (5) and host Toronto (6) in the national championship tournament this week at The University of Toronto's Varsity Arena. While play begins Thursday, Dube's Thunderbirds open Friday night against either Toronto or Montreal.
"It's been so great to come back to the game and be with a team like this," Dube said. "The majority of the team is the same from last year, so it's obvious the talent was already there, but Graham has helped them change their mindset about winning, and it's been incredible to be with them to see it happen."