Special to the Herald
Abby Soyko chuckles at the fact she was a rookie of the year for a U Sports team at age 21.
The all-time leading scorer of the Prince Albert Northern Bears under-18 AAA team earned the distinction of being named the rookie of the year for the University of Alberta Pandas Women’s Hockey Team last season. The power forward finished her first U Sports campaign collecting nine goals and six assists in 24 regular season games.
Soyko was appreciative of being named the Pandas rookie of the year, but she also noted she wasn’t a rookie that joined the team straight out of high school.
“I didn’t really feel like a rookie,” said Soyko, who turned 22-years-old on Oct. 30. “Obviously, I’m already one of the older half of the team.
“It was nice to be recognized by my teammates.”
Since graduating from the Bears at the end of the 2018-19 campaign, Soyko took a long and winding road to finding a home with the Pandas. It was a road filled with setbacks and comebacks.
Having finished playing one season with the Northern Alberta Xtreme under-18 female prep team in Edmonton, Soyko was finishing up her Grade 12 studies in high school and looking forward to joining the University of Lethbridge Pronghorns Women’s Hockey Team in September of 2020 along with one of her triplet sisters in Alli. The two sisters had played together on the Xtreme and the Bears.
On April 20, 2020, the University of Lethbridge axed the Pronghorns Men’s and Women’s Hockey team’s due to budget cuts. On May 28, 2020, Abby found a new team and she officially joined the storied Pandas. The Pandas have won eight U Sports women’s hockey titles, which is the most out of any team on that circuit.
The Pandas season in 2020-21 was ultimately cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic that had gripped the world. In June of 2021, Soyko tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her knee and had to undergo reconstructive surgery. Due to the one year long rehabilitation it took to comeback from that injury, Soyko was forced to miss the 2021-22 campaign, when all leagues under the U Sports umbrella returned to action.
In her first game with the Pandas on Sept. 30, 2022 at the historic Clare Drake Arena on the U of A campus, Soyko scored her team’s first goal of the season in highlight reel fashion in a 3-2 overtime victory over the Mount Royal University Cougars. In open frame working in the offensive zone, Soyko passed the puck to herself through the legs of a Cougars checker and snapped home a shot to the top left corner, short side over the blocker of Cougars netminder Kaitlyn Ross.
Soyko started her second season with another bump breaking her hand in a pre-season game against the NAIT Ooks on Sept. 9. She returned to action this past weekend playing on the road against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies at Merlis Belsher Place in Saskatoon.
The Pandas dropped the first game on Friday 2-1 but rebounded with a 2-1 overtime victory on Saturday. Soyko wasn’t able to crack the scoresheet, but she started to get more in her groove as the Pandas moved their record to 8-2.
“(Friday), I kind of felt like the jinx obviously being minus-two in the first period, but everyone was really supportive,” said Soyko, who stands 5-foot-4. “They knew I was going to come back and be better (on Saturday).
“Even (on Friday), I was much better in my second and third periods. I just got the jitters out. (Saturday), I felt much better.
“I was playing with Megan Wilson. I played with her a bit last year. She is my roommate, so it was pretty comforting having her out there with me.”
Now in her second full season playing with the Pandas, Soyko said her comfort level was always good with the team, but it is even that much higher this season.
“Experience helps a lot, obviously,” said Soyko, who is still the ninth all-time leading scorer in the history of the SFU18AAAHL piling up 128 points in 136 regular season games with the Bears. “People look at me to know the systems and know what we’re doing out there.
“I had to keep up to date with everything even when I was sitting out.”
Experience in another aspect of the game gave Soyko a different outlook when sitting out. Along with playing for the Pandas, Soyko has been doing some coaching and on-ice instructing in Edmonton. From those experiences, she learned a new joy that comes from helping other players improve.
When she hasn’t been able to play with the Pandas due to injury, Soyko helps out the team’s coaching staff with statistics, and she is active in giving her teammates feedback in trying to help guide the teams towards a win. With the Pandas getting out to a 7-1 start while she was on the mend with her broken hand, Soyko said the feedback was positive reinforcement. She was more along the lines of rooting her teammates, and it fit because they were playing well and winning.
“I did enjoy just cheering my teammates on,” said Soyko. “It was no pressure.
“You just show up with a big smile and be everyone’s cheerleader, but I am excited to be back.”
Pandas acting head coach Darren Bilawchuk is excited to have Soyko back. The veteran bench boss sees the Prince Albert product as being a big piece to any potential future success the team could have.
“She (Soyko) has got a great skill set,” said Bilawchuk. “She adds another dimension to our team when we have her in the lineup.
“Just getting her back is going to be a big advantage. The last couple of years she has grown with this team. We’re excited to see what she can do this year.”
Bilawchuk said it did hurt the Pandas not having Soyko on the ice, but the positive was she was going to be back for a bulk of the campaign including the post-season.
“It was tough for us and tough for her,” said Bilawchuk. “It is the nature of the game.
“If you had to pick, you’d sooner have it happen at the beginning of the year versus the end of the year. Hopefully, she can stay healthy from here on out.”
Soyko is looking to make another Saskatchewan return as the season goes on. With the Pandas, the goal for the team is always to make it to and win U Sports nationals due to the squad’s pedigree.
This season’s U Sports Women’s Hockey Championship will be held March 14-17, 2024 at Merlis Belsher Place. It would be extra special for Soyko to get to nationals this year with it being located so close to Prince Albert. She also wants to have a little bit better of an experience in Merlis noting the Bears lost their first two visits to that facility against the Saskatoon Stars during the first season that rink was open in 2018-19.
“I feel like even from midget I have a lot of unfinished business in this building,” said Soyko, who helped the Bears with an SFU18AAAHL title and earn a berth to the Esso Cup under-18 female AAA national championship tournament in 2016-17. “Coming back here and just finishing what I started a long time ago would be really nice.
“I feel like I don’t always perform my best in this rink, which is upsetting because my family and friends come to watch me. Hopefully, we can be back here for nationals and give it our best.”
Darren Steinke is a Saskatoon-based freelance sportswriter and photographer. He blogs frequently at stankssermon.blogspot.com.