CALGARY – The Canadian women's hockey team is opening a new chapter following a coaching change and the retirement of some key veterans.
There will be major changes to the roster, especially on the blue-line.
The retirements of veteran defenders of Becky Kellar, Colleen Sostorics and Carla MacLeod represent half the defence from the team that won Olympic gold in February. Forward Gina Kingsbury has also retired.
Sixty-six players, including 22 defenders, were on the ice Wednesday for a five-day evaluation camp at Father David Bauer Olympic Arena.
After the camp concludes Sunday, new head coach Ryan Walter will choose 21 players to represent Canada at the 4 Nations Cup in St. John's and Clarenville, N.L., in November. Walter played 15 years in the NHL and was most recently assistant coach of the Vancouver Canucks.
“I said to the veteran team here yesterday that I was at 20 straight training camps – five in junior and 15 at the pro level,” he said. “You're always competing for a job and people know that. I think that's why it's so fun to come to camp. It's about that job.”
Seventeen players from the team that won Olympic gold in February are still in the program. But there's never been this much change at one time on the national team.
“Three defence and one forward retire, it's a big change,” Montreal forward Caroline Ouellette said. “It's half our defence we're losing. We have so much talent. I think it's going to be such a battle to see who is going to make the team this year.”
Meaghan Mikkelson of St. Albert, Alta., Catherine Ward of Montreal and Tessa Bonhomme of Sudbury, Ont., are the three remaining 2010 Olympians on defence.
“Obviously with the turnover there, there's a couple of openings, but when it comes to it, when you pick a team, there's six openings and six spots to battle for,” Mikkelson said. “Coming into it, I don't think we look at it as there's three returning defencemen and three open spots. I think there's six open spots and 22 defenceman at this camp going for those spots.”
There won't necessarily be new faces on the blue-line, however, as 2006 Olympian Gillian Ferrari of Thornhill, Ont., and veteran Delaney Collins of Pilot Mound, Man., are still in Canada's pool of players and will battle to return to the national squad.
“I would hope I can get back my spot,” Ferrari said. “That's obviously why I'm here.”
Collins has played in world championships before. Ouellette has played defence occasionally during her career and could go back there again if experience is needed. Jocelyne Larocque of Ste. Anne, Man., is another defender to watch. She was invited to try out for the Olympic team last winter, but was released.
Melody Davidson coached the national team five of the last six years and is now the head scout of Hockey Canada's female program. Davidson cultivated offensive defencemen for her 2010 Olympic team. Walter intends to continue that trend.
“The defenceman that can move the puck, carry the puck and get up in the play is the way of the future,” he said. “A lot of the things Mel did were very good. We'll continue down that stream of thought and just tinker with the process.”
Defender Bobbi-Jo Slusar of Swift Current, Sask., has been on Canada's depth chart for several years. She's trying not to be distracted from her performance by thinking about the possibilities of making the team.
“There's been a lot of change that has happened lately with the staff and also with the retiring players,” Slusar observed. “For myself, I don't think a lot changes. I'm not going to consume my time too much thinking about retired players and whatnot.
“The biggest thing I need to control is myself and also have fun with the players, but look this opportunity as really taking a spot and really fighting to be at my best every single time I can.”
Thirty-eight forwards have been invited to camp, but expect Canada to retain much of its experience up front led by captain and all-time leading scorer Hayley Wickenheiser.
Goaltending is now an even tougher position to crack since Shannon Szabados of Edmonton played such a stellar game in the Olympic final against the U.S. Veterans Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., and Kim St. Pierre of Chateauguay, Que., also remain in the program.
This is a time of transition for the Canadian women, however, as they chart a new course for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Players invited to this week's camp look to gain a foothold in those plans.
“Obviously we've got a veteran group there that have done an amazing job and we honour them,” Walter said. “Then camp comes and that all ends. Away we go.”