First Nations forward leads U of T to silver medal at national university tournament

Wednesday, March 20th, 2024 11:48am


Image Caption

Sophie Grawbarger. Action shot by Seyran Mammadov.
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Sophie Grawbarger has some shiny new bling.

And though the silver medal is not the colour she would have preferred, Grawbarger, a member of Garden River First Nation in northern Ontario, is pleased with her team’s second-place finish at the Canadian university women’s hockey tournament.

Grawbarger and her University of Toronto Varsity Blues were downed 3-1 by Montreal’s Concordia Stingers in the gold-medal match at the nationals, which concluded March 17 in Saskatoon.

“Even before the final game I was proud of myself and proud of my teammates for making it to the championship game,” said Grawbarger, who is a left winger.

U of T had participated at the 2023 national tournament held in Montreal. Grawbarger and her teammates had entered last year’s event as the top seed. But they were relegated to consolation action after losing their opening game versus the eighth-ranked Mount Royal Cougars of Calgary.

“This year we were kind of underdogs, and nobody was expecting us to get to the championship game of the tournament,” said Grawbarger, who is 22.  

The Varsity Blues entered the eight-team tournament as the Number 6 seed.

U of T, however, downed the third-seeded University of New Brunswick Reds 2-1 in their quarter-final matchup held March 15.

Grawbarger netted the game-winning goal in that outing.

The Varsity Blues then earned a spot in the gold-medal contest by edging the seventh-ranked University of Montreal Carabins 2-1 in a shootout in their semi-final outing.

Though disappointed with the outcome in the final, Grawbarger was happy with how far her squad advanced this season.

“I think that was the first time in about 20 years that U of T had made it to the championship game,” she said.

Grawbarger is expected to graduate next month with a Bachelor of Arts degree with a specialization in Indigenous Studies and a minor in history.

But her university student/athlete days are not over.

She has been a student at U of T for four years, but her entire first year of hockey at the school was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a result, Grawbarger technically still has two seasons of athletic eligibility remaining. She does plan to return to school this September and play at least one more year for U of T.

Grawbarger said she will be eligible to continue suiting up for the Varsity Blues even though she will be taking courses in a non-degree program. But she’s not quite certain what courses she will enroll in.

No doubt Grawbarger will continue to play a key role with the Varsity Blues. She finished second in team scoring this season, collecting 22 points (10 goals and 12 assists) in 38 games.

She spent the majority of the 2023/24 campaign on a line with 19-year-old twins Ashley and Taylor Delahey, who are from Markham, Ont.

“The twins are really skilled,” Grawbarger said. “They have great hockey IQ.”

Grawbarger has already established a couple of goals for next season. She is hoping the Varsity Blues can win not only the Ontario title but also the national crown.

U of T did win its provincial championship, titled the McCaw Cup, in 2023. The Varsity Blues still qualified for this year’s Canadian tourney even though they were defeated by the Waterloo Warriors in the Ontario finals.

U of T’s head coach is Vicky Sunohara, who won three Olympic medals during her own playing days.

Sunohara was a member of the Canadian teams that won the gold medal at the 2002 Salt Lake City and 2006 Turin Olympics. And she was a silver medalist at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.

“It’s awesome,” Grawbarger said of being coached by Sunohara. “She has so much hockey knowledge.”

Though she is uncertain of how much longer she’ll play at the university level, Grawbarger would welcome the chance to one day play in the pro ranks.

The Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), which is in its first season of operations, currently has six franchises, three in Canada and three in the United States.

“I would love to play if I got the opportunity,” Grawbarger said.

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.