Photo: Phillip MacCallum

Perseverance Paying Off

The road to a potential 11th world title for the Canadian Women’s Hockey Team has not come without its share of obstacles.

Injuries to star players and overcoming deficits have been part of the storyline for Canada during the 15th edition of the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Ottawa, ON. But this deep and talented team has been able to persevere and go 3-0 in round-robin play while outscoring opponents 23-2 – good enough for first place in its pool.

And now the heavily favoured squad awaits a semifinal matchup on Monday, April 8 against upstart Russia for an opportunity to head to the final and defend the 2012 world title won in Burlington, Vermont.The team’s goals have not changed and players have not forgotten what it means to wear the Maple Leaf on their chest — regardless of who they face.

“It’s always an honour to wear this jersey,” said forward Jayna Hefford (Kingston, ON). “Our game plan doesn’t really change a whole lot once we get out there.”

The semis will be a tale of two very different squads. Out of the eight teams in the tournament, Russia has the fewest number of registered female hockey players while Canada has led the world in both medals and in dominance.

This is a breakthrough tournament for the Russians as they look to continue improving ahead of Sochi 2014.

“Actually it is (interesting that Russia is doing well),” said goalie Shannon Szabados (Edmonton, AB). “Especially since it is the country that’s hosting the next Olympics. That’s awesome for them.”

The Russians are aware of the historical implications of this game and what making it this deep into a tournament can mean for the growth of the game in their home land.

“I understand that in Canada, women’s hockey (has been) developed already for a long time,” said Russian forward Yekaterina Smolentseva. “In Russia, it’s not. We are working and we are approaching to try and develop (women’s hockey).”

They will have their work cut out for them by a Canadian team that has not just been impressing a nation, but it has also been breaking new ground for the game of hockey. In its final round robin match, an 8-0 drubbing of Finland, the team was able to attract a record-breaking 18,013 fans to the arena – a new single game attendance record for female hockey, surpassing the previous record of 16,347, also held in Ottawa (January 1, 2010 vs. USA).

The attendance record is a true testament to the popularity of the women’s game in Canada and the fans in Ottawa have indeed inspired the team.

Photo: Phillip MacCallum

Fans have been out in full force supporting their Canadian women including a record-breaking crowd of 18,013 to see Canada defeat Finland. Photo: Phil McCallum

“It was awesome,” said Hefford of the crowd. “It was a fun rink to play in and loud. We knew it was going to be big, but when you see them singing and dancing during the anthem…it`s exciting. It’s really rewarding.”

Canada’s character as a team was tested early in the tournament when the women showed great resolve by coming back from a deficit against the U.S. in a highly anticipated rematch of the 2012 gold medal game in Burlington, Vermont. Down 2-0 entering the third period and without captain Hayley Wickenheiser (Shaunavon, SK) who was injured early in the second period, the Canadians fought back and scored two late in the period to tie things up.

Olympic returnees from 2010, Rebecca Johnston (Sudbury, ON) and Catherine Ward (Montreal, QC) led the way to tie things up in regulation. Johnston scored after she found the puck in a scramble in front of the American net. With less than two minutes left in the game, the home team scored at the 1:47 minute mark when Ward tapped in a rebound from a Sarah Vaillancourt (Sherbooke, QC) shot. Jennifer Wakefield (Pickering, ON) would beat the Americans on her last shot in the shootout to clinch the victory.

The win was significant as the Canadians had lost their last match against the U.S. in the final of the 4 Nations Tournament by a score of 3-0 on November 10, 2012 in Tikkurila, Finland.

Momentum carried over into their second game against the Swiss with Wakefield opening the scoring at the 4:40 mark of the first period. Marie-Philip Poulin (Beauceville, QC) followed that up approximately eight minutes after for what would be the first of four goals on the night for the native of Beauceville, QC.

Canada would receive goals from 10 different women to defeat the 2012 world bronze medallist 13-0.

Charline Labonté (Boisbriand, QC) was awarded the shoutout after a 16 save night. The win was even more special because the team had to play without injured stars Caroline Ouellette (Montreal, QC) and Hayley Wickenheiser – who combined have six Olympic gold medals.

“We were playing for our players who weren’t there,” said Poulin after the victory, adding that coaches were heavily emphasizing the little things right. “We have to get better every day, every game, and that’s what we did.”

Canada is expected to have a full and, more importantly, a healthy squad come the semifinal.

The defending world champs will attempt to secure their spot in the gold medal match against Russia on Monday, April 8 at 7:30 p.m. EST and it can be seen live on TSN.

–  George Fadel