03/06/2013 03:01 EST | Updated 05/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Calgary Dinos, Wickenheiser in tough to repeat as CIS women's champions

TORONTO - They're the defending champions with Olympic gold medallists behind the bench and on the ice, yet the Calgary Dinos head into the CIS women's hockey championship flying somewhat under the radar.

Calgary is the fifth seed in the six-team tournament, which begins Thursday at Varsity Arena, after being upset by the University of British Columbia in the Canada West championship series.

But national women's team star Hayley Wickenheiser says the No. 5 ranking doesn't concern the Dinos.

"For us, it's another chance," Wickenheiser said Wednesday at the tournament news conference. "We get a second life and that's what we're looking forward to.

"We had a few tough breaks last weekend but feel if we play our best hockey things will work out for us. We have a lot of players who have experience, there's no surprises. You know what you have to do. The focus is on us and our game."

The Montreal Carabins, fresh off eliminating three-time national champion McGill, come in as the top seeds. Atlantic champion St. Francis Xavier is ranked second, ahead of No. 3 Queen's with U.B.C. at No. 4 and the host Toronto Varsity Blues as the sixth seed.

Montreal (13-7-0 regular-season record, 4-1 in playoffs), UBC (17-7-4, 6-2) and Toronto (15-8-3, 0-2) form Pool A while Calgary (23-4-1, 3-3) headlines Pool B with St. Francis Xavier (23-1-0, 3-0) and Queen's (20-4-2, 6-1).

The Dinos begin their title defence Thursday afternoon by opening round-robin play against St. Francis Xavier. The tournament ends Sunday night with the championship final.

Wickenheiser, 34, will undoubtedly be the highest-profile player on the ice this weekend. The native of Shaunavon, Sask., has led Canada's national team to three Olympic gold medals and seven world titles.

Wickenheiser is also the first woman to play full-time men's pro hockey at a position other than goal and is regarded as the world's top female player. But the kinesiology student admits playing the Canadian university game is a challenge.

"It's probably the hardest hockey I've ever played," she said. "Things don't happen quite as naturally as you would say it would when you play at the higher levels or with more experienced players.

"It's very unpredictable and at any point in the game things can change in a heartbeat so for a fan that's exciting to watch."

But it has also taught Wickenheiser to be a different kind of player on the ice.

"You have to be more patient,'' she said. "You have to find ways to make players around you better and find ways to make the team successful.

"At the same time, you must keep emotions in check in terms of staying calm because anything can happen and turns in the game happen often."

Calgary coach Danielle Goyette, another former national team member and Olympic gold medallist, said the Dinos are anxious to have a second chance to defend their CIS crown.

"In general we had a good season but with this team it's never easy," she said. "We never do things the easy way.

"For us, it's a second life and we want to make sure we take this opportunity to make something happen."

The tournament will also offer Wickenheiser and Goyette a chance to catch up with Vicky Sunohara, another former national team member who's in her second year as the U of T's head coach.

"It's always nice to get back together and talk," Sunohara said. "I know it's in a different level, we're coaching against each other but it's just fun, it's a great reunion.

"I talk more about the different things with coaching because Danielle has coached longer than me and I know I have a lot to learn. It's great to hear experiences as well and it's great to have that friendship continue."

That is, until the puck is dropped.

"We have a good friendship," Goyette said of Sunohara. "But when we're on the bench we're not friends any more."

Wickenheiser agreed.

"You still have that bond because you've won and lost so many times through the years together," she said. "We shared some really special moments that not too many people get to share at that level of hockey so it's fun.

"But when you get on the ice, you're not friends anymore, you're competitors. It's fun to one-up one another and try to get bragging rights for later in the summer."

Despite having been a member of the Canadian women's team since '93, Wickenheiser has no immediate plans to stop playing any time soon. In fact, she has set her sights firmly on leading the squad into the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

"Beyond that, it all depends," she said. "I want to go to medical school and if I got into medical school and had opportunities I'd have to look at how long I could keep playing for.

"I don't have any plans to hang it up right now. Everybody says you'll know, so I don't know yet."

The CIS honoured its best performers Wednesday, with McGill forward Melodie Daoust being named Canadian women's university hockey's top player. The second-year forward from Valleyfield, Que., is the second straight McGill player to capture the award after Ann-Sophie Bettez did so last year.

Daoust is the first player to be named top rookie and outstanding player in consecutive seasons. She had 18 goals and 43 points in just 18 league games.

The other winners included Guelph forward Christine Grant (top rookie), St. Thomas captain Kayla Blackmore (excellence in athletics, academics and community involvement) and British Columbia's Graham Thomas (coach of the year).

Wickenheiser also received an honour, being named a first-team all-star. Joining Wickenheiser at forward were Daoust and Guelph's Amanda Parkins while Western's Kelly Campbell earned the nod in goal with teammate Katelyn Gosling and Calgary's Stephanie Ramsay on defence.