It was the gold medal game for women’s hockey at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah. Canadian greats Hayley Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette and Jayna Hefford scored Canada’s three goals to defeat the US, winning Canada its first gold medal in women’s hockey at the Olympics. Little did the team know that, as the final buzzer went, a spark was being lit for a six-year-old Canadian girl back home.
“It all happened really fast. I think I was doing the usual soccer, dance, all of that and I don’t exactly remember where I was, but me and my friend were watching that final gold medal game between Canada and the US, and Canada won, and … it inspired us. That’s all I can really say that it did,” said UBC hockey player Cassandra Vilgrain.
Today, Vilgrain leads not only the Thunderbirds, but Canada West, with 14 points so far this season in women’s hockey. After joining the ’Birds from the University of New Hampshire, Vilgrain is making a name for herself back here in her home country.
And it all started with that gold medal game.
Her sudden interest in the sport may not seem like a surprise when you consider who her father is. Claude Vilgrain was a Canadian National Team member and an NHL player for the likes of the Vancouver Canucks, the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils. He was also Cassandra’s coach for eight years.
As Claude explained, he had just retired from hockey when Cassandra was starting out in the sport, giving him an opportunity to move from being on the bench to behind it — whether he initially intended to or not.
“We registered her for a hockey team and then all the parents got together and they said, ‘Okay, well we need a coach,’ and then nobody would step up to the plate,” said Claude.
“I wasn’t there at that time and my wife said, ‘Oh, my husband. He’s not working right now’ — because I had just retired — ‘And he would coach.’”
Claude would end up coaching Cassandra for eight years, teaching her the ins and outs of the game from an incredibly experienced perspective. “It’s different than just having a parent coach. He really knows how to separate himself from that,” said Cassandra.
“He treated me the same as everybody else, even would be harder on me … but he had expectations for me and [I] knew that I would need to meet those expectations. It was never too much pressure — it was good criticism all the time.”
And among the skills — the puck handling, the shooting and the passing — there were lessons to be learned around sportsmanship too.
“He’s always taught me … No matter how well I do or how high I perform, staying humble and true to myself and not getting a big head. I think that’s the most important [thing] in every aspect of my life,” said Cassandra.
“Whether I’m getting attention over anything or just like when you get on a high in life, sometimes you kind of flutter off in your own head and get full of yourself … My whole life he’s taught me never to get to that point and to always keep yourself in check.”
That advice would come in handy once she got to university, where she would tally 17 points in her rookie season and earn a place on the Hockey East All-Rookie Team in 2014.
From the years of practice with her dad, Cassandra has also taken on some family mannerisms which haven’t gone unnoticed by Claude, who watched her New Hampshire games online.
“The way she gets set up for a face-off, or she takes a shot, or she starts skating up ice,” he said. “It’s weird — even some pictures, we almost have the same face.”
Even with her success in New Hampshire, Cassandra decided it was time for a move after three seasons with the New Hampshire Wildcats. UBC turned out to be the perfect fit.
“I knew I wanted to come back to Canada, be closer to home, and Vancouver just seemed like the best option. Not only the city, [but] the high level of education and just the team here has a genuine passion for hockey,” said Cassandra. “That is something that was definitely missing and that I was starting to lose myself, and that I’ve regained since I got here.”
When asked, Claude agreed the move was best for his daughter as well.
“I knew by coming and playing with [UBC head coach Graham Thomas], she would have a better chance to succeed, as a team obviously, but personally because she has a lot to offer and she will do whatever you want her to do,” he said.
"It’s all about confidence, and watching her [now], I can tell she’s confident. She’s having a great time over there.”
“When I come to the rink here, I’m excited to go to practice, I’m excited to see the girls, I’m excited to learn. Whereas [in New Hampshire], I had to prove myself, I have to work my butt off, but it wasn’t for me anymore and that was my biggest thing,” said Cassandra. “So now I’m working for me, I’m working for everyone else and I’m just happy to do it.”
With that revived passion for the game, Vilgrain has made her mark on the T-Bird team and on the scoreboard with three goals and 11 assists, and 16 more games to go before the end of regular season.
What’s more, she is expanding her family legacy into women’s sport, and doing so in extraordinary form.
“I’m on a high right now,” she said. “I hope I don’t have to come down from it any time soon.”