VANCOUVER — Poonam Sandhu fashioned one of the most steeped national championship resumes in UBC sports history during her playing career in the midfield of the Thunderbirds’ women’s field hockey team.
Yet despite all of the national titles accumulated, and all of the personal accolades heaped upon her during that span, it was always her deep understanding of the program’s rich and decorated history which allowed her to put all personal accomplishments into perspective.
All of that seems especially relevant this week as Sandhu, 27, sits on the eve of her weekend debut as the new head coach of the UBC program, one which, stretching back to her days as a player, has won a record seven straight McCrae Cup U Sports national titles.
The ‘Birds get the toughest of starts to the new Canada West campaign, playing host to its arch-nemesis, the Victoria Vikes, in 11 a.m. starts both Saturday and Sunday.
“Going up against Victoria, you have to bring your ‘A’ game,” says Sandhu. “The rivalry is such a healthy and exciting experience that you can immediately feel the pride you have for your school.”
Sandhu wore that very sentiment on her sleeve over a UBC playing career chalked with highlights.
And there were so many, that over her six seasons at UBC (2009-14), the ‘Birds won five national titles, their only miss coming in the one season (2010) Sandhu did not play, after suffering a torn ACL.
In fact the last goal of her university career came in her final game, the 2014 national final, and you guessed it: It was the winning goal.
Yet in one of those moments of true rearview-mirror clarity, you can re-visit Sandhu in that moment of personal glory and see that even then, she was walking the walk as a coach-in-the-making.
That day, in her team’s 2-0 national title win over Toronto’s host and previously-undefeated Varsity Blues, Sandhu’s game-opening goal held as the winner.
And when I asked her about it that early November day, amidst the post-game pandemonium, her simple response was “My team played so well, so it was so easy to just put it in for them.”
FIELD HOCKEY A FAMILY AFFAIR
Since winding up her UBC playing career in 2014, Sandhu has made inroads in the coaching profession, first with club and provincial youth teams, and most recently as the lead assistant on last season’s national championship team. The overall journey has introduced her to quality mentorship.
Her first five seasons were spent under longtime UBC coaching dean Hash Kanjee, while she played her final season under Robin D’Abreo in 2014, and then joined his staff, first as a manager/assistant (2015, ’16) before taking a more substantial role last year.
Sandhu stepped in as UBC’s interim head coach in December when D’Abreo was named UBC’s Director of Athletics, Operations and Team Support. She was officially named head coach this past May.
Yet if you ask the girl who grew up in East Vancouver, in a family that doubled as Canadian field hockey royalty, her biggest influence has been her father.
Nick Sandhu is a Field Hockey Canada Hall of Fame inductee who represented his country at both the 1984 and 1988 Summer Olympic Games.
Yet as accomplished as her father was as a player, it has fittingly been her memories of him as a coach which have been most impactful.
“He ended up retiring (to injury) when I was born, so I didn’t get to watch him play as much,” remembers Sandhu of her dad. “But he was an assistant coach of the 2008 (Canadian) Olympic team at Beijing. So a lot of what I have watched of him, has been in his coaching role.
“And that has been awesome,” she continues, “having someone in your living room to talk shop and chat about ideas. And he was my first coach.”
As well, her uncle Bill Sandhu also played for Canada, and has served many years as a top-level coach.
READY FOR A LIFETIME IN THE GAME
With all of that said, Poonam Sandhu is excited to put a personal stamp on her first UBC team, all the while cognizant of the traditions the program has built over the years.
“I think the biggest challenge is trying to continue to maintain the foundation,” begins Sandhu of a program which has won 19 national titles, including the last four under D’Abreo and 10 under the guidance of Kanjee.
“It was so important to Hash and Robin, and it is so important for me to keep this culture alive,” she continued. “But I am also putting my own philosophies and my own coaching style into the mix.”
The ‘Birds come into the new campaign looking to fill the shoes of three key graduates in Sarah Keglowitsch, Sophie Jones and Meghan Hayden, but having keeper and U Sports national Player of the Year Rowan Harris back for her fifth-and-final campaign is a huge plus.
And Sandhu is excited about beginning a mentorship with her incoming freshmen class, including the likes of Canadian Under-21 select Izzy Fraser, Alix Vanry and Jillian Wallace.
“Personally, I have a younger sister and we have a 10-year age gap,” begins Sandhu of younger sibling Prava Sandhu, this season a freshman for the same York Lions team which UBC beat in last season’s national final. “So for me, I see these girls coming into our program here, and I understand where they are coming from. I have been through the exact same emotions and the same environment. But at the same time, I know that everyone’s journey is completely different.”
Sandhu’s own journey, from East Vancouver’s John Oliver Secondary through to the Canadian senior national team and the 2014 Commonwealth Games, has been unique. And each of her varied accomplishments along the way just reinforces the blueprint of someone wanting to spend a lifetime in the game.
Sandhu graduated from UBC with a Master’s degree in Applied Sports and Exercise Science, and over the past few years, while serving as a manager and assistant with the ‘Birds field hockey program, she coordinated youth sports programs in the Delta School District, and established a field hockey equipment and apparel store (Hockey King Sports) in Vancouver with her dad.
She first donned Thunderbirds’ blue-and-gold nine years ago as a high school freshman, and over that span, UBC has played in the national final each season, taking gold all but once.
Now comes the 10th season. And even though she’s a rookie all over again, Poonam Sandhu is wise enough to knows that if the ‘Birds are to win their record eighth straight U Sports national crown, and 20th overall, one important axiom can’t change.
“For me, just starting out at UBC, right away you got a sense of what the culture and the dynamic was like,” she remembers. “The culture was important. You had to have the right mindset. If you weren’t a team player, you weren’t going to make it through and that’s because if you weren’t involving yourself in the team environment, you were leaving yourself out.”
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