They may be among the youngest Olympians on Canada’s National Women’s Team, but they’re no rookies.
In fact, these six players, who combine for an average age of just 22.7 years old, are already groundbreakers in the female game.
Blue-liners Laura Fortino, Lauriane Rougeau and Tara Watchorn, along with forwards Brianne Jenner, Marie-Philip Poulin and Natalie Spooner all made the cut for Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team during the team’s inaugural season in 2007-08.
And before being centralized in Calgary, Alta., for the full season leading up to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, all six had already experienced training and skating out of Hockey Canada’s home arena – at the first-ever IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship held six years ago.
“I just remember having chills,” Jenner, 22, said of pulling on her Team Canada jersey for that very first time. “You dream about it when you’re a kid.”
Really though, then 16-year-old Jenner was still a kid when she took to the ice with Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team, first for a three-game series against the U.S. Women’s National Under-18 Team that took place in Ottawa, Ont., in August 2007, and then in the new year at the 2008 IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship, which was hosted at Father David Bauer Olympic Arena and Norma Bush Arena in Calgary, the long-time headquarters for Hockey Canada.
“It was great to have the first-ever U18 worlds on home soil, and we had a lot of fans at every one of our games,” she recalled. “That was my first chance to play in front of lots of people.”
Jenner went on to captain Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team at the next summer’s three-game series in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the 2009 IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship in Füssen, Germany.
Since then, she has been a constant in Canada’s National Women’s Program, becoming one of the youngest players centralized in Calgary leading up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C., travelling overseas with Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 Team, playing in five 4 Nations Cup tournaments and joining Canada’s National Women’s Team at two different world championships.
That includes winning the gold medal with Canada at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Burlington, Vt., where she played the sport she loves at the highest possible level, just four years after first wearing that maple leaf.
“We have the same extensive testing in the U18 program, and summer training schedules as the senior program, so it gives you a taste of what’s expected,” Jenner said of how working her way through the Team Canada system prepared her for the world’s biggest sporting stage at Sochi 2014.
“You get experience at international tournaments,” she said, “and you’re also prepped on what it takes off-ice.”
The teammates Jenner has climbed Canada’s National Women’s Program ladder alongside agree completely.
“When you play at those levels, you’re playing with the best girls at that age, and no matter what, you have to bring your best,” Fortino, 23, said of competing with both Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team and Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 Team, now referred to as Canada’s National Women’s Development Team. “It helps you, in every way, come out of your comfort zone.”
Fortino also played at those first two under-18 world championships, claiming silver at both, as well as at the two most recent senior world championships, earning gold in Burlington and silver at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Ottawa, Ont.
“It has helped me mature and learn a lot about myself, as a person and a player,” she said, adding, “I’m fortunate to have had great teammates.”
That includes Spooner, also 23, who had five world championships behind her before heading to this year’s Olympics, additionally claiming silver at the 2011 IIHF World Women’s Championship in Winterthur and Zurich, Switzerland.
Like five of her fellow Olympic first-timers, Spooner’s Sochi journey started with wearing the red and white on Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team.
“It was really cool to be on the first-ever U18 team,” she said. “It made me realize, like, ‘Wow, I can actually do this, and I can actually make the U22 team or the senior team, and go to the Olympics.’ ”
“It kind of makes your dream a bit more reachable, I think, knowing that there’s a path to get there.”
So how do little girls with big dreams follow in the footsteps of Canada’s youngest true veterans, the original “super six” to take the road from Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team to the Olympic Winter Games?
“If you want to make … and stay on this team, you have to always be developing,” Jenner said. “When you’re a young kid coming in, just take in all you can, learn from the coaches, learn from the veteran players, and remember that there’s always a goal to work towards.”
“Just go out there and try your best,” Spooner added. “Just keep playing hard and do everything they ask, and in the end, as long as you did your best, then you know you have no regrets, and whether you make it or not, you should be proud.”