Among the most inspiring individuals to have worn the green and white jersey for the University of Prince Edward Island Panthers, Jolena Gillard brought a jovial demeanor and team first approach that positively shaped the team culture. The pride of Deer Lake, Newfoundland, wearing the number 88 on her jersey, majoring in sociology with a minor in business, provided a series of heroic moments that propelled her into the pantheon of Panthers greats.
Early in the 2021-22 season, the Panthers recognized long-time coach Donnie McFayden, paying homage to an integral mentor and builder for university athletics. Worth noting, McFayden also scouted Gillard, representing her first linkage to the Panthers. Hosting a tribute game in his honor on November 28, an inspired roster upset the top ranked Saint Mary’s Huskies by a 4-2 mark.
Contributing towards a highly emotional game, Gillard assembled one of the most inspiring moments of the AUS season. Fighting back from a 2-0 deficit, she logged the game winning goal, unassisted, at the 9:37 mark of the third. With Taylor Gillis putting the game out of reach with an empty net goal, it marked a proud career highlight for a jubilant Gillard, her performance a seminal moment in Panthers history.
“That goal was just an unbelievable play by Marty (Mireille Martin), but it was unreal feeling knowing I could be a part of the reason why we won that game. Donnie has done so much for me. From schooling to making me a smoothie, to always being the smile I needed for hard days. It was a proud moment for me for sure but the credit was all to my teammates, and of course, Donnie.”
Gillard’s scoring touch also provided a feel good story at the 2022 U Sports Nationals, bringing an exciting closure to a compelling career that saw full circle as a key theme. With the Nationals held in Charlottetown, the Panthers serving as host team; it held a highly profound meaning for Gillard and her teammates.
Following a preliminary round match versus the eventual national champion Concordia Stingers, the Panthers faced off versus the OUA runner-up Brock Badgers in a consolation match. With retiring head coach Bruce Donaldson unable to take his usual place behind the bench due to pandemic protocols, said match took on a heightened level of emotion.
After a scoreless first period, Gillard found the back of the net at the 12:48 mark of the second period, the Panthers faithful erupting with cheers. As the match progressed, the Panthers retaining a 1-0 margin in a tightly contested match, Gillard provided the heroics once again. With less than three minutes remaining, she provided the Panthers with a 2-0 advantage, scoring on Badgers backstop Tiffany Hsu, placing the game out of reach.
Mirroring the inspiring contest honoring MacFayden, Gillard used the opportunity versus Brock to pay tribute to Donaldson, also scoring the game-winning tally. Complemented by Camille Scherger’s 30 save performance, the shutout final marked a crowning achievement for the prolific scorer.
Recognized as the Nike Top Performer for the Panthers, while Cassidy Maplethorpe earned the honour among the Badgers, Gillard’s goals in the 2-0 triumph signified a brush with history. Enjoying their first ever win at Nationals, she enjoyed her finest hour. Reflecting on the heroics, appreciation for the program was evident, recognizing how the continued presence and support of teammates and coaches alike enriched a highly worthwhile time.
“These moments are probably some of the greatest memories I will have for a lifetime. I had goals set for myself for this year. To know I have hit them all, plus more, is a feeling some people will never experience.
I have the greatest family supporting me. Always on the good and bad days and they are the ones I owe the credit too. Scoring two goals in front of them on a national stage was something I would never imagine I would do. Yet again, I owe it to my teammates and coaches.”
Leading the nation with 14 goals scored, part of a tremendous 22-point output, Gillard gained a well-deserved place as a First Team Atlantic University Sport (AUS) All-Star. Followed by the monumental milestone of well-deserved acclaim as a USports Second Team All-Canadian, representing an exciting first in her Panthers career. As a side note, the last Panther to earn All-Canadian honors was goaltender Camille Scherger in 2020.
University accolades served to accentuate a sensational season, validating Gillard’s great career. Garnering Team MVP honors, the former Panthers women’s ice hockey Rookie of the Year in 2019, finished 2021-22 as the recipient of the UPEI Alumni Association Award in recognition of the Female Athlete of the Year. Undeniably, the reaction was one filled with surprise, providing her with a highlight cherished for many years to come.
Entrenching her place as a pivotal figure in Panthers athletic lore, the honour goes beyond recognition of a great performance for a grateful Gillard. Embodying a team-first philosophy that defined an entire career as a Panther, with a strong set of values establishing confidence and character, the enthusiastic applause showered upon her was truly well-earned.
Eligible for at least one more season of Panthers hockey, the prospect of playing professionally in Germany or Sweden also provides intriguing possibilities. Regardless of the decision made, the path is one where Gillard will remain both, role model and a highly valued teammate.
“It means so much to me to be recognized as Female Athlete of the Year. That was never put on my goal list, because of all the amazing athletes at UPEI. Yet, I honestly have to say (that) hearing my name called was the most emotional achievement I have ever had. To have the entire UPEI teams cheering as loud as possible is something I could relive over and over.
UPEI has been nothing but great to me. It will be my forever home and always have a special place in my heart. To know (that) I have made such an impact on a huge stage coming from a small town is amazing.
I have always played for the name on the front of my jersey but also the one on the back. Because without the name on my back I would not be the player and human I am, so I am very grateful for everyone that has impacted such a great career.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”