Together at last, Canadian women's hockey team reunites after pandemic separation

·4 min read

CALGARY — What Marie-Philip Poulin looks forward to the most at the Canadian women's hockey team camp is simply lining up for drills and seeing her teammates' faces.

It's been 10 months since the national women's hockey team was on the ice together.

Hockey Canada obtained the necessary exemptions from Alberta Health to hold a 14-day camp in Calgary amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Poulin, Canada's captain, has missed the competition and camaraderie desperately.

"It means a lot. It's been a long time coming," said the 29-year-old forward from Beauceville Que.

"Just being back here as a group in Calgary, it's going to be awesome just to get back on the ice and really connect."

All players and staff were told to quarantine for seven days and get tested for the virus before heading to Calgary.

Of the 47 players invited, 35 arrived Sunday to quarantine in their hotel rooms and be tested four times over five days.

Barring positive tests, the players were scheduled to start skating in groups of three Tuesday before larger groups hit the ice Thursday. Three intrasquad games are planned.

"These women want the opportunity to just compete a little bit against each other," head coach Troy Ryan said. "That's one of the biggest things we're going to be able to provide them at this camp.

"It brings a little bit of normal life back to them. Although it looks totally different, I think it kind of gives them a little bit of hope."

The dozen invitees not in Calgary were classified as "unable to attend", which ranges from injury, college commitments and COVID exposure, but they'll participate in virtual meetings and activities, said Hockey Canada director of women’s national teams Gina Kingsbury.

"We're seeing everyone on the screen. We just won't see everyone on the ice," Kingsbury said.

Canada's last international game was Feb. 8, 2020, to cap a five-game Rivalry Series against the United States.

At a short camp in Toronto later that month, Hockey Canada finalized the roster for the women's world championship, but the tournament in Nova Scotia was cancelled and rescheduled to April 7-17, 2021.

Canada's international games in the 23 months since finishing third in the 2019 world championship in Finland has been limited to seven games against the U.S.

The 2019 Four Nations Cup in Sweden was cancelled because of a dispute between the host women's team and its own federation.

Women's professional hockey was in transition when the pandemic hit.

The majority of the Canadian women's team belongs to the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) which has yet to announce any showcase tournaments this winter.

So a perfect storm of circumstances has Canada's top female hockey players sorely lacking in meaningful games.

Women in the national team pool train in Toronto, Montreal and Calgary hubs under varying restrictions and have skills coaches employed by Hockey Canada.

Poulin's on-ice environment in Montreal has ranged from a limit of three players on the ice to larger groups with everyone wearing masks while they skate.

"It's been a little difficult," Poulin acknowledged. "It's been challenging, but any time we had a chance to jump on the ice as a group, we took advantage and really pushed each other.

Beyond camp is continued uncertainty over if and when the women's world championship will happen.

Hockey Canada's operation of the national junior men's team and world under-20 tournament that concluded Jan. 5 in Edmonton paved a path for this women's camp and potentially the world championship to go ahead in a pandemic.

"I hear from Hockey Canada the commitment is there," Kingsbury said. "If one country can do it's definitely us and we've shown that with world juniors.

"It's just a matter of when in the year that looks like. I'm confident it will happen in the spring. It might be a few weeks later or a month later."

The Calgary' camp, which concludes Jan. 30, is normally held in September. Ryan wants the players to focus on what they have and not what they're missing.

"There's no way we would have been able to do this camp a few months ago, so it's a step in the right direction for sure," he said.

"All the things that had to be done to make this camp possible, if you're not someone that steps back from that and actually appreciates it, I'm not sure that's the type of person we're going to have success with."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 19, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press