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Hockey Canada continuing to gear up for Worlds

Jocelyne Larocque and Rebecca Johnston talk about camp, PWHPA

United States v Canada
Jocelyne Larocque #3 of Canada skates with the puck during women’s hockey action in Game #4 of the 2020 Rivalry Series against the United States at Rogers Arena on February 5, 2020 in Vancouver, Canada.
Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

The 2021 PWHPA Secret Dream Gap Tour was in full swing with a pair of showcase weekends in New York City and Chicago. While Team adidas (Minnesota) and Team WSF (New Hampshire) put on a dazzling display over four games, they aren’t the only team that has been training and putting in work this month.

Hockey Canada’s second training camp of the year recently wrapped up in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Thirty-five of Canada’s top players from across the country gathered in the Maritimes biggest city from March 1 - 7. The focus during Hockey Canada’s first camp of the year featured quicker puck movement and possession. This time around there was a shift in another direction.

“This camp the focus has been on defensive zone coverage,” Hockey Canada’s Jocelyne Larocque explained to The Ice Garden from Halifax. “For the remainder of the camp, the focus seems to be on our power play. It’s going really good. The presentations have been great, the work and the practice has been great. We’re definitely taking some strides in the right direction.”

Moving the puck up quicker from the defensive zone to the forwards is absolutely vital for any successful hockey team. If Hockey Canada is going to excel in the transition game, it starts with a smooth stick to stick outlet pass. Hockey Canada’s special teams is another area that could always use some fine tuning. During the 2019 - 2020 Rivalry Series against USA Hockey, Canada went 2-for-20 on the power play.

“You want to try and get as much offence as possible,” Hockey Canada’s Rebecca Johnston revealed to The Ice Garden from Halifax. “That’s for sure something that we’re working on and focusing on. Just generally, everything is important for us. We’re touching on a lot right now since we haven’t been able to be together for a long time. I think all areas of the ice are important, but scoring is for sure top of the list.”

While the team was training and keeping safe in their hotel rooms, players kept an eye on PWHPA Secret Dream Gap Tour. Players were glued to all the action from the historic game at Madison Square Garden. Johnston and Larocque and their teammates weren’t able to watch the game from the United Center in Chicago because it conflicted with Hockey Canada’s on ice practice.

Just being able to have PWHPA games in the U.S. during a pandemic has been a huge accomplishment.

In terms of when the PWHPA will be able to schedule games in Canada, that’s easier said than done.

“I know they are working on it, I’m optimistic and hopeful,” Larocque said. “There’s nothing concrete yet. I know that there’s some work to try to create a bubble so we can keep the players safe. We can abide by whichever province would host with their restrictions and protocols. I know there’s work towards it, to try to get Calgary, Montreal, and Toronto in one area in a bubble situation, but no there’s no concrete dates or anything like that.”

Canada’s strict COVID-19 protocols leave no wiggle room. Anyone entering Canada must complete a 14-day quarantine period, and that’s after a three day stay at a government approved hotel, while you await your COVID-19 test results. Rules and restrictions differ from province to province. What might be possible in Alberta, might not be the same in Quebec or Ontario.

The PWHPA’s three teams that are based in Canada are currently in a wait and see period. If they are going to hold games north of the border, the window could be narrowing. Ahead of Worlds in May, Hockey Canada is set to hold a third training camp on April 15.

Not being able to have a routine and a set schedule of when your PWHPA team is going to be on the ice has been frustrating.

“It’s been very challenging,” Johnston said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs for sure. We’re really kind of living in the moment, because it’s really hard to plan anything. We’ve been having challenges skating with our PWHPA group. We haven’t been able to skate for a while actually. Every time we get on the ice, we get that exemption or we’re allowed to skate. Everyone’s so excited to be able to get back together on the ice. Hopefully things start to get better and we’re able to start skating consistently as a group.”

One of the biggest hurdles is something as simple as how many players are allowed on the ice at the same time. Currently in Alberta you can practice with a maximum of 10 players on the ice. While the NHL, WHL, and AJHL all have approval from the Alberta Government to bypass the 10 player maximum, it’s a different story for the PWHPA.

“I think it’s the protocols,” Johnston explained. “Alberta Health, and the guidelines of allowing us to skate and what the restrictions and guidelines are. It seems to be difficult in Calgary for us right now to be able to skate as a group. I don’t know exactly why it has been so difficult. I know cases have been up around Christmas time and they seem to be going down. Hopefully soon, we can skate again as a group.”

Across the country in Ontario, PWHPA players who are part of the Toronto team, are facing a similar problem.

“It definitely has been challenging, especially in Ontario,” Larocque admitted. “We’ve had quite a few restrictions. It’s to keep the public safe, I definitely don’t disagree with the restrictions, but it’s made it challenging to practice in large groups. It’s been since October that we haven’t been able to practice with the PWHPA. Fortunately enough, as national team players we were exempted by some of the restrictions. We’re able to skate in groups of 10, but there’s more than 10 of us, so we have to split into two groups. We’re able to skate four to five times a week in small groups. We’ve been doing that since October.”

As Canada ramps up vaccinations across the country, there is a hope that restrictions can be slowly lifted from coast to coast. That in turn could provide an opportunity for the PWHPA to hold games in Canada. The availability of Canada’s seven NHL arenas and the ever nearing 2021 Women’s World Championships in May could result in a scheduling time crunch this spring.