As the grasp of winter descends across North America and the vortex thickens, it’s time for the best game you can name. Earlier this winter Hockey Canada wrapped up Canada’s first women’s senior national camp since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The top players gathered in Calgary, Alberta for a two-week training camp from January 17 - 31.
Heavy COVID-19 restrictions were in place, before and during camp. Players were confined to their respective rooms unless they were going to the rink. During the first three days of camp, players weren’t allowed to leave their rooms at all. Once a player had three negative tests, only then were they able to go on the ice. In the beginning, ice time included a limit of three players for the first two or three days. Gradually practices were able to ramp up to include the full group of players at camp.
Two-time Olympic medalist, Natalie Spooner couldn’t hide her excitement about being back with her teammates.
“It’s been awesome,” Spooner explained to The Ice Garden. “It’s kind of like letting wild animals out of a cage because we haven’t been able to play games in so long. We had four games while we were in here. I was part of Team Red, and we came out on top, so that’s always a good feeling. It’s just awesome to be back with the girls. We’ve kind of been training all over Canada. There’s been a group of us in Toronto. Just to get back with everyone else. It’s been an awesome time so far.”
Hockey Canada’s preparations all lead back to the road to the 2021 World Championships in Nova Scotia this spring. The event which was supposed to take place last spring in the same location, was rescheduled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the anticipation has been building for almost a whole year,” Spooner explained. “Ever since it got canceled, obviously you’re bummed at first, but then you start thinking about the next year and it getting to be in Canada and to go to Halifax and play there. I think that COVID has only upped that ante and made us crave that international competition. We’re all really excited and have been putting in a lot of hard work throughout COVID and in this camp. We’re excited to test ourselves against those other teams and getting back to playing other countries.”
Whether or not Spooner and her teammates get to test themselves against the world’s best, remains to be seen. Even with the rollout of a vaccine across North America and parts of Europe, there is still a lingering cause for concern surrounding the upcoming World Championships.
The possibility of a postponement or a cancellation can’t be ruled out.
Heard some chatter April's Women's Worlds in Nova Scotia could be pushed back. Asked Hockey Canada, which said it is in constant communication with IIHF— Emily Kaplan (@emilymkaplan) February 9, 2021
Hosting the tournament "remains a priority for Hockey Canada." "Venue & event partners remain committed to finding a solution"
Hockey Canada’s Blayre Turnbull recently shared her frustrations with the IIHF.
When Hockey Canada does take to the ice, there’s always the challenge of taking on their nemesis and arch-rival, USA Hockey. Even with the recently retired Lamoureux twins out of the picture, USA Hockey is the thorn in Hockey Canada’s side. When the two countries last met, the neighbours to the south got the better of Hockey Canada during the 2019 - 2020 Rivalry Series. USA Hockey won four of five games against Hockey Canada and outscored their rivals 16 - 8 in the process.
The Scarborough native, Spooner knows that it’s always a hotly contested tilt when the Canada and the U.S. take to the ice.
“I think they’re always the exciting game,” Spooner explained. “They’re the ones we always want to play in, that are always the most intense, but I feel that this Worlds is going to be able to be at a whole other level because we haven’t played them in so long. We’ve had that COVID (pandemic) and that time to reflect and go over it. I think it’s going to be a super intense game when we play them, it always is. They’ll be a lot of energy in that game for sure.”
During Hockey Canada’s training camp, Coach Troy Ryan and his staff had players working on several new concepts. Hockey Canada’s puck possession and transition game wasn’t where it needed to be during the rivalry series.
USA Hockey was able to take advantage with numerous odd-man rushes.
Without giving away too much, Spooner unveiled one of the new concepts Hockey Canada wants to improve upon.
“One of them would be to make sure we’re moving the puck up the ice way quicker than we have been,” Spooner revealed. “Sometimes it can be a little bit risky as a defenceman, going back and having to turn to move the puck up quickly. It can obviously either go both ways, that you’re going to get an odd-man rush or it could be a turnover.”
When the 30-year-old Spooner isn’t rippling the net with a wicked wrister she enjoys re-watching Schitt’s Creek and engaging with her fans on various social media platforms. Spooner has also appeared as a pundit on Rogers Sportsnet’s Hockey Central show.
One of Spooner’s popular social media posts included a TikTok post that blew up just before Christmas. Spooner was explaining how she was unable to wear several of her hockey jerseys in 2020, because of the pandemic.
“Yeah, I’m not great at TikTok,” Spooner admitted. “I’m still trying to figure it out. It was actually one day on the ice, we were talking about TikTok and Jamie Lee Rattray brought up that one with the dog (Tika the Iggy) who was doing the exact same thing. I decided to make one with all my different jerseys that I didn’t get to wear because PWHPA didn’t get to play, Canada didn’t play. It was pretty cool to see the response and to see how many people loved it and thought it was a little bit of humour, but also a little bit of truth to it.”
As fans in Canada and North America await the return of women’s hockey on the international stage, so do the players. Spooner and her Hockey Canada teammates are champing at the bit. They want to be back on the ice, just as much as fans of both teams want to see them on the ice. Whether that’s at the 2021 World Championships that remains up in the air just like the polar vortex.