Joelle Gagnon wasn't the only member of the Bishop Gaiters who has spent more than a year anxiously awaiting her U Sports debut.
The graduate of College Notre-Dame and long-time member of the Sudbury Lady Wolves was expected to join the entire Bishop's crew in playing their inaugural RSEQ games during the 2020-2021 season - a campaign which was obviously lost to COVID-19.
Come Friday October 29th, in the nation's capital, their dream will become a reality when the Gaiters travel to face the Carleton Ravens.
As a team, Bishop's has known for a while this day would come to pass. Not so much the case for the smooth-skating Sudbury forward.
"To be honest, I was kind of losing hope after a certain amount of time," said Gagnon, the youngest of two girls in the family at 19 years of age who did not finalize her recruitment to the university team until very late in her final year of minor hockey.
"A lot of girls tend to commit early, often before they even begin their last year of midget. I was really happy the stars eventually aligned. I was glad that I pushed to the end to see if anything would happen."
Gagnon did not crack the Sudbury Midget AA roster until her third year in the age bracket, staying true to a pattern that dated back to her younger days, typically moving from a lower level team in each category before eventually making it to the top team.
"Rob Papineau gave me a chance in peewee," recalled Gagnon, who jumped all the way from "B" to "AA" in a single season back then. "I was so thankful for that opportunity. I got to learn not only hockey-wise, but also got established in a group of girls that had been playing together."
"Being able to progress and develop with the best peewee girls is something that I never took for granted. Without that big jump, I wouldn't be where I am today."
In fact, it established a mindset that helped convince Gagnon that playing U Sports hockey was an achievable goal. "I am someone who needs to play amongst good fast-paced players to really develop," said the young woman who is majoring in Sport Studies with a minor in Psychology and a concentration in Athletic Development.
"If I play with people of the same caliber as me, I find that I often times become more of a perimeter player."
Never known as a pure offensive catalyst, Gagnon has pigeonholed a slot with Bishop's where she believes she can excel. "I take great pride in my skating abilities - it's always been a forte," she said.
"I was always trying to be sort of that offensive defensive forward, not necessarily the most gifted or biggest goal scorer on the team, by any means - but I like to use my skating ability to make sure that I am good in all three zones on the ice."
While the Gaiters will enter play in the conference with the fewest teams in the country, they also do so amid perennial powerhouses McGill (Martlets) and Montreal (Carabins). "We are absolutely very aware of it," said Gagnon.
"We kind of have the mentality that we are underdogs going in. It fuels our fire, knowing that we have something to prove."
On a more personal level, Gagnon has always dealt with the questions of whether she feels truly comfortable at the upper echelons of the sport, now better equipped than ever to answer those questions.
"There's always some nervous energy going into playing at the highest level," she said. "I definitely had some doubts in myself, but I had to reinforce the fact that I am here for a reason, that I was chosen to be here."
And now is their time, not just for Gagnon, but for the entire Bishop's team, breaking new ground less than two months from now.