The top young female players from across the country will, quite literally, be following in the same footsteps – in fact, skate strides – as many of their women’s hockey heroes.
When eight teams step onto the ice at the Markin MacPhail Centre for the 2013 National Women’s Under-18 Championship, they’ll be stepping onto the very same ice that their role models, the 27 most talented women’s hockey players from across the country have been playing and practising on since August, as they train hard and travel the long road to, if all goes as planned, a fourth consecutive gold medal at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
From superstar veterans such as Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette to rookies such as Mélodie Daoust, Jenelle Kohanchuk and Tara Watchorn, the very best in the female game have packed up and moved from all corners of the country to Calgary so they can work full-time with Canada’s National Women’s Team based out of Hockey Canada’s headquarters.
The national team is training off the ice at the first-class facilities nestled in Canada Olympic Park, where many other elite winter sports athletes are also working to make their Olympic dreams come true, and skating on the same international ice surface that will host the five-day national championship, when teams travel from all provinces and regions to “saddle up for the cup” in the city known for cowboy hats and the province known for sprawling farms and ranches.
While the puck drops on the 2013 National Women’s Under-18 Championship, the ladies in red and white will be giving up their home ice so their under-18 counterparts can battle for a gold medal, while they travel to Lake Placid, N.Y., to play in the 2013 4 Nations Cup.
Although they won’t be in Calgary to give their young protégés high-fives as they step out onto the ice, they have left some words of wisdom in their wake, on how all under-18 players can make the very most of their special experience while representing their province or region at a prestigious national championship.
“Getting to that level, and knowing that was the highest level that we could be at, at that time, it really prepared me to … play against and with the best players,” forward Natalie Spooner said of how playing for Ontario Red twice, in both 2005 and 2007, helped ready her for Team Canada competition.
“Be confident and have fun,” recommends Spooner, who won gold twice at the National Women’s Under-18 Championship, and has since won the gold medal with Canada’s National Women’s Team at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. “You’re with a bunch of other girls that love to play the same sport as you, so just go out there … and work your hardest … it will be a great experience no matter what the outcome.”
“You’re seeing the best of the best in Canada at your age,” agrees fellow Team Canada forward Bailey Bram, who won bronze with Manitoba at the 2007 nationals. “You get to play against them, you get to play alongside them … and it just kind of keeps you motivated as to what you have in front of you, and what you have in your future.”
Forward Haley Irwin played for Ontario Red at the second-ever National Women’s Under-18 Championship, winning gold in January 2005. She was also on the world championship-winning Team Canada contingent last season, and was a rookie gold medallist at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
“It was an exciting time,” Irwin said of representing her province on the ice. “It helped my development, and I think helped me get my foot in the door for our under-22 national team.”
Formerly referred to as Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 Team, and now called Canada’s National Women’s Development Team, the chance to play at that level is an important step in Hockey Canada’s Program of Excellence. Playing for the development team often comes after taking to the ice with Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team, and before getting the chance to skate as a member of Canada’s National Women’s Team at events such as world championships and the Olympics.
That means taking the ice at the National Women’s Under-18 Championship, in its relatively short but strong nine-tournament history, has become a significant first step for many of the youngest and brightest Team Canada stars.
Defenceman Laura Fortino, who played for Ontario Red at the national championship in both 2007 and 2008, agreed playing on the national stage helped her develop and improve her hockey skills “tremendously.” Fortino also went on to win gold at 2012 women’s worlds in Burlington, Vt.
“I was fortunate both times to win a gold medal, so that’s obviously a big memory of mine, but I think I mostly had a lot of fun,” she said of what stands out the most about under-18 nationals. “Just take every day in stride, take it as a learning experience … and work hard every day to try and get better.”
“Have fun and enjoy it,” Irwin adds. “It’s a proud moment to represent your province – be proud.”
Of the 27 players currently centralized in Calgary with Canada’s National Women’s Team in preparation for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, 19 of them have played in at least one National Women’s Under-18 Championship. Together, they’ve combined for 14 gold, eight silver and four bronze medals.
Of those same Team Canada players, they have combined for six Olympic gold medals, and 15 world titles. And while the top up-and-coming young players from across the country make their provinces and regions proud this November in Calgary, the members of Canada’s National Women’s Team are cheering them on, as they travel the road to Sochi 2014, in hopes of defending their Olympic gold and making all Canadians proud.