Howie Draper and his staff went online to formulate a group identity that
would drive Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team to gold at the 2019
IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship.
Ideally, the team-building notion would connect to Japanese culture, with
the northern city of Obihiro hosting the eight-nation competition.
They found their answer by uncovering information about the Onna-bugeisha,
a type of Japanese female warrior who fought on the battlefield alongside
samurai men during times of utmost need.
These fighters gained reverence for exhibiting honour, loyalty, generosity,
resilience and humility as they defended family and honour itself.
“We picked out this digital image of an Onna-bugeisha warrior and decided
she would be the one who would lead us into battle in Japan,” says Draper,
the Canadian head coach.
Each of the players was asked to exemplify the Onna-bugeisha.
“We had to embody the traits of a humble warrior,” says captain Maggie
MacEachern. “Those traits include respect, honesty, optimism and
fearlessness. Each day we picked a new word, and we would strive to follow
that [value] to the best of our ability.”
A close-knit vibe, coupled with winning two of three games in a summer
series against the United States, provided evidence Team Canada was
positioned to succeed in Japan.
The Canadian squad received another signal glory was on the horizon when
they met with the kannushi (priest) of the Tarumaesan Shrine – Tarumaesan
means “power spot” in Japanese – they visited to complete Hatsumōde, a
Japanese New Year custom of wishing for health, happiness and success.
“He came to us and had some dancers perform a well-wishing kind of dance
for us,” says Draper. “He blessed us, and at the end of his speech, he
said, ‘You will win.’
Team Canada made the kannushi’s prediction come true. However, achieving
ultimate victory on the frozen battlefield was not going to be an easy
Just as the Onna-bugeisha warriors sharpened their naginata blade to
prepare for battle, the Canadians honed their readiness for the playoff
round with a pair of one-goal contests to open the tournament. After
winning 2-1 over Sweden, Canada was dealt a 3-2 loss by the U.S.
“The feeling of tasting failure is something that you need to help
formulate a plan to get better and hopefully in the future succeed,” says
Canada’s lone comfortable win was a 5-1 decision over Russia to close out
the preliminary round, but the rematch against the Russians in the
semifinal was more difficult – the combatants dueled to a 3-3 tie through
MacEachern admitted she “was pretty nervous” heading into overtime. She was
one of four returnees – along with Alexie Guay, Julia Gosling and Grace
Shirley – who had their dreams of gold at the 2018 worlds dashed with a 4-3
loss to the Americans in the semifinals.
“I carried that with me,” she says. “Whenever I was down on the bench, I
thought, ‘This is our chance. If I am going to change the result from last
year, it starts now.’”
The grit of MacEachern and the other veterans permeated to the first-year
members of the team.
“Once we got down to the medal games you can see our leaders stepped up,”
says Maddi Wheeler. “They wanted that extra fight, and I think that helped
younger players like myself want to be as good as them.”
Danielle Serdachny provided the heroics in the semis, scoring 44 seconds
into overtime to earn the Canadians a berth in the gold medal game.
Canada displayed the tenacity of the Onna-bugeisha again in the final; down
by a goal entering the third period, Anne Cherkowski tied the game at 2-2
with less than nine minutes to go to force an extra period.
“It was a group that for whatever reason had that resolve to succeed,” says
Draper. “When you have a group of athletes like that, good things tend to
And they did. Just 1:34 into the extra frame, with Canada on a power play,
Wheeler shovelled in her own rebound after a determined drive down the
right wing, putting the Canadians back atop the podium for the first time
“I just remember I saw the puck go in and I threw my gloves, and I hugged
Alexie Guay and then everyone piled on in a great big dog pile,” says
Wheeler. “It was amazing.”
MacEachern ran the gamut of emotions in the gold medal game.
“It was nerve-wracking between the third period and overtime. I don’t think
I have been so nervous about playing. Then there was that feeling of
euphoria when Maddi Wheeler put in the puck. We’re all celebrating, and I
don’t even know what happened. But we’re all out there, and we’re
screaming. It was so cool.”