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Neleh Vigneau Sargeant shines for Canada at ISBHF U21 Worlds

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Highly talented in all facets of the game, 2023 saw the hockey world catch up to Neleh Vigneau Sargeant. The pride of Loon Lake, Nova Scotia, a trio of tremendous highlights cemented her place as a star on the rise. On the ice, Vigneau Sargeant landed a prestigious place on the RSEQ Second Team All-Stars. Accentuating a season that saw her record the first hat trick in Bishop’s Gaiters history (in RSEQ play), she was the offensive catalyst that propelled the program into the playoffs.

Following a great season in the Gaiters purple jersey, Vigneau Sargeant excelled on the slab. Capturing a gold medal for Canada at the ISBHF Under-21 Women’s Worlds in Liberec, Czechia, she would enjoy the opportunity to compete in the CBHA National Championship tournament, continuing to establish herself as an essential facet of the game’s future. Undoubtedly, a considerable element of character defined the path to such a memorable year.

First named to Canada’s roster for the 2019 edition of the Under-21 Women’s Worlds, setbacks from pandemic woes and military conflict prevented numerous international tournaments from occurring. Regardless of the wait, the sense of unity never wavered. Essential in keeping the team unified, an opportunity to participate at the 2022 CBHA Women’s B Nationals in Fredericton, New Brunswick, proved key preparation.

With Canada’s contingent part of a field of teams including the Calgary Tunesquad, Edmonton Cherry Pickers, New Tecumseth X-Treme, Ottawa Spartans, Saint John Thundercats and Saskatoon Prairie Storm, Vigneau Sargeant ranked second in scoring during the preliminary round. Emerging with a silver medal, the championship final featured an elite goaltending display as Maggie Jones faced 21 shots for Canada, while Edmonton’s Keeley Prockiw logged the shutout with 34 saves in a 1-0 final.

Fittingly, Jones and Prockiw, along with Vigneau Sargeant have all been named to Canada’s roster for the 2024 ISBHF Women’s Worlds in Visp, Switzerland. Coincidentally, Jones was also involved in the gold medal final at the ISBHF Under-21 Women’s Worlds, recording a shutout versus Slovakia as Canada prevailed by a 1-0 tally. As Vigneau Sargeant reflects, the feeling of unity served as the cornerstone of success in Liberec.

“This was a team effort. We had worked together online for four years through multiple cancellations due to COVID and war. We had played together once in the Women’s B Nationals in 2022 but we spoke often and stuck to our individual training programs.

We held each other accountable and made each other better through our personal commitments. I do not know how to explain what went into building this virtual team, but we were the real deal – we gelled in a very special way.”

Reflecting on the opportunity to represent Canada internationally, the feeling of national pride took on greater meaning for Vigneau Sargeant. While her contributions on offense demonstrated an exceptional leadership, she rose to the occasion with a greater role. Named as an alternate captain for Canada, sharing the leadership mantle with Brooke Lannon and Alyson Thomas, this titanic trio held another unique connection, as all three were part of Canada’s roster in 2019. While their leadership forged a strong team culture, creating a feeling of family, such a career milestone also held a significant connection to her familial roots.

“Wearing the red Maple Leaf in international competition is a source of tremendous pride for me. I am from a military family and both of my parents served this country. I grew up understanding how fortunate I am to be born in Canada.

Adding an A to the jersey and having the opportunity to help lead this group of young women was something I will never forget. I appreciate the trust that our coaches put in me and grew as a friend, teammate and leader because of it.”

Emerging as the tournament’s leading scorer, contributing points in five victories en route to the gold medal, celebrated recognition as the Offensive MVP added lustre to a memorable time. Wearing her trademark number 47, Vigneau Sargeant made a significant statement as she recorded Canada’s first goal of the tournament. Assisted by Ardyn Hawryshko, she found the back of the net at the 3:51 mark of the first period, part of a 5-1 win versus Slovakia on July 3. Later that day, Vigneau Sargeant contributed an assist on a goal by Jenni Simpson, while Hawryshko led all Canadians with a pair of assists, as a 3-1 final against Czechia propelled Canada into first place.

“I have played provincial and University hockey, so I understand hard work and discipline. Playing on the world stage, however, is a privilege few people get and I took it very seriously. As soon as hockey season ended, I adjusted my training for Worlds. I did not have an individual goal except to bring my best to the game every day. There are many strong offensive players on Team Canada, we had the most offensive depth in the tournament.

Finishing top in scoring and being named the Offensive MVP of the tournament were incredible honours. I could never have achieved this without outstanding support from teammates and coaches and I am grateful to them all.”

After the heroics from the opening day of the tournament, Vigneau Sargeant continued to make key contributions. A 6-2 victory against the archrival United States on the Fourth of July saw Vigneau Sargeant record the first and last goals of the game for Canada. Building on such momentum, the final match of the preliminary round resulted in a phenomenal six-goal performance, as Canada defeated Great Britain in an 18-0 triumph.

Among all her tournament efforts, the most memorable involved being part of the game-winning goal in the gold medal final. With a scoreless game filled with tension, Vigneau Sargeant found Jenni Simpson open. Bouncing the ball off the boards, Simpson proceeded to pass to Jesse Dzikowicz, firing a shot from the right side past Slovakian goaltender Nina Cengelova. Proving to be the golden goal for Canada, the emotion from such an exhilarating remains prominent in her reflections.

“That final game was intense. When we scored that early goal, we had no idea that it would be the winner. With both Canada and Slovakia having no problems scoring in earlier games, I though it would be a higher tally. Yet, our goalie was a rock.

Even when we had some penalty trouble, our team rallied. The Slovakian team never gave up and deserve a ton of credit for such a strong showing. Maybe what tipped the scale in our favour was our incredible fans. The Canadian contingent showed up daily and were our backbone.”

Following up on the magnitude of the U21 Women’s Worlds, Vigneau Sargeant extended her season with participation at the 2023 CBHA Women’s A Nationals. Coincidentally, the Edmonton Cherry Pickers played another part in her CBHA journey, as she suited up for the club.

Calling Prockiw a teammate, the experience resulted in another podium finish, as the Cherry Pickers earned a bronze medal. Facing off versus the Manitoba Mayhem, which featured Dzikowicz on their roster, Vigneau Sargeant’s playmaking skills were on full display. Amassing three assists, including a pair in the second period, giving the Cherry Pickers a 5-1 advantage, it was a lead they would never relinquish. Finishing the tournament as the club’s leading scorer, recording at least one point in six games, Vigneau Sargeant is poised to be a fixture in CBHA and ISBHF play for the remainder of the decade.

“I was the only player on the Junior National Team from Nova Scotia as the sport is not as popular as some other provinces. Nova Scotia has no provincial team so I was grateful to the Edmonton Club for their invitation to play with them in the Nationals in Saint John. We had a bit of a rough round robin but steadily improved to win the bronze medal as underdogs. It was a far different experience from Team Canada and I learned a ton. My teammates were very skilled and welcoming, the coaches gave me a ton of advice and it was character-building to never give up and secure the come-from-behind victory.

It was an amazing summer overall!”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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