It has been a whirlwind January for Sophie Shirley and Amy Potomak.
Two weeks ago, the duo lined up together with Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team at the 2016 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship, chipping in four
points apiece to help win a silver medal in St. Catharines, Ont.
This week Shirley and Potomak, both 16, are lining up together again, this time at training camp with Canada’s National Women’s Team.
The MasterCard Centre in Etobicoke, Ont., is a mere hour away from the Meridian Centre, but the opportunity to share the ice with 15 players who won a gold
medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games has let Potomak and Shirley step up and into a new level of hockey.
Take Wednesday’s five-on-five intrasquad game. Shirley and Potomak lined up as the left and right wingers, respectively, on the second line for Team White.
Their centre? Five-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser.
Staff and management didn’t want to wait until September and Canada’s National Women’s Team Fall Festival to see the players at the senior level, says
Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada’s general manager of national women’s team programs.
“We can see where they fit in, or if they fit in, and give them that experience [now],” she says. “They can see the speed and the power and the strength at
this level. When you’re young you focus a lot on your natural talent and underestimate the importance of that power and strength.”
“A huge part of my game is my speed,” says Shirley, “and I noticed I could keep up with the girls out here, which was good. Something I need to work on,
though, is getting stronger. Going into the corner with some of those girls is pretty tough.”
Being invited to the same camp as 15 Olympic gold medallists, as well as those who’ve played internationally for Canada’s National Women’s Team and
Canada’s National Women’s Development Team, is both exciting and intimidating.
“You learn a lot just from watching them play,” says Shirley. Seeing them do the little things right – stopping on pucks, going to the net, getting
rebounds –leaves a big impression. “This is a huge benchmark for me. At this age it’s pretty big [to learn] what I’m good at and what I need to improve on
for later years to achieve my goals.”
The veterans have welcomed the rookies with open arms, says Potomak. Cool-downs have proven to be the perfect time for the older players to share their
experiences and encourage the young newcomers to be themselves and have fun.
“They know so much; I’m trying to soak in as much information from them as I can,” she says. “Just take in from their experiences and listen to what they
have to say.”
One of the first people Potomak called after receiving her invitation was her sister, Sarah. If anyone understands the thrill and trepidation of that
earlier-than-expected milestone, it’s her. Sarah was only 16 herself when she was invited to Canada’s National Women’s Team’s Fall Festival in September
2014 and had plenty of advice to share with her younger sister.
“She told me that she was pretty nervous,” says Amy. “And she told me to be myself, play my game and keep it simple. She said not to overthink it and just
Shirley and Potomak both got early looks from Team Canada in second-year Bantam. Over the past nine months, though, they’ve had the opportunity to play for
national audiences and have thrived under the pressure that comes with extra attention and expectations.
Shirley was Top Scorer and Most Valuable Player at the 2015 Esso Cup, leading the Saskatoon Stars to a bronze medal at Canada’s National Female Midget
Potomak was named Most Valuable Player at the 2015 National Women’s Under-18 Championship, helping British Columbia to a fourth-place finish.
While earning the chance to skate with Canada’s National Women’s Team came earlier than either player could have anticipated – in fact, both are still
eligible to play another year for the under-18 team – the steps to get there have long been in motion. Shirley, for instance, decided to forgo another
season in Midget with the Stars in favour of playing at the junior level with the Notre Dame Hounds. Potomak is now in her third season at the Pursuit of
Excellence, a hockey academy in Kelowna, B.C.
The move to accelerate their development by playing in higher-paced leagues appears to have paid dividends with the invitation to this week’s camp.
“They’ve definitely fit in and enjoyed it,” says Davidson. “They have a real good level of respect for their teammates and are just excited to be a part of
this and see what it’s all about.”