LAKE PLACID, NEW YORK – With abundant smiles gleaming across their faces, Team Canada took the ice in Lake Placid for the first time, skating out onto an ice sheet that has chapters of lore in men’s and women’s hockey history.
A tight-knit group, despite meeting less than two weeks ago, Canada is ready for the knockout stages, the bright lights, and the final sprint toward the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games championship and gold medal.
After barnstorming through the round-robin with a perfect 5-0-0 record, Canada enters the medal rounds as favourites, but it’s not changing their preparation. In their final group stage game against Team USA, they were pushed to their limits — and the Americans aren’t even advancing.
Canada takes on Slovakia in the semi-final on Friday afternoon at the historic Herb Brooks Arena, looking for a second win over the Slovaks after opening the tournament against them with a 4-0 win back on Jan. 11.
Fans can catch that game at 2:35 pm ET on TSN’s website and for free on FISU TV.
The winner of that game will face the winner of Czechia vs Japan for a chance to claim the gold medal on ice that has seen the Miracle on Ice men’s Olympic medal in 1980 and the best of the NWHL (PHF) showcasing their craft in 2020.
“The fact that we beat them is something we must be very aware of,” head coach Greg Bowles said of facing Slovakia in the semi-final.
“Wounded bears. If you’ve ever gone hunting, the most dangerous bear is a wounded bear, and we have to know that we probably wounded [Slovakia] them, and they’re going to come out super hard and wanting to win, and we have to rise to that challenge.”
When Canada beat Slovakia, it was early in the process. Bowles and Team Canada have had phases and four stages that the team has approached since meeting in Ottawa ahead of the games in Potsdam, New York.
Against Slovakia, it was phase two — they hadn’t even practiced the powerplay. Now, however, the group is much farther along.
“It’s phase three now and moving into phase four, working on polishing our craft and getting into autopilot, so everything we’ve introduced, it’s just about doing it better,” he said.
Team Canada impressed through the preliminary stages and continuously grew through every game. Against Slovakia, the powerplay never got the puck into the slot, and the goals didn’t come from sustained offensive pressure.
Yet they showed progress, pushing past Czechia and Japan, two complex teams, while ironing out their tactics, particularly how they advance the puck up the ice and cycle in the offensive end. While there are still remaining aspects to work on, their progress culminated against Team USA, playing a high-tempo style that forced them to move the puck faster than they previously had.
Nearly everyone has played a critical role for Team Canada so far, with Nipissing’s Maria Dominico leading the team with nine points in five games, closely followed by SMU’s Shae Demale, whose strong play on the puck has allowed her teammates to get into scoring positions and draw defenders out.
On the backend, Carley Oliver’s smooth skating and Elizabeth Mura’s defensive awareness have helped Canada to the best defensive record. In contrast, Isabella Pozzi and Jenna MacLean have often jumped up into the attack, with MacLean even playing as a forward on occasion.
All the while, Canada has gotten to this point using all three goaltenders. While UNB’s Kendra Woodland has played a team-leading 120 minutes and hasn’t allowed a goal, her backups Camryn Drever and Aurelie Dubuc have backstopped Canada to wins as well.
Yet, when a team of U SPORTS All-Stars comes together, there’s little doubt that the skill will be present — for Team Canada, it’s come down to how they work as a group.
“We got really close over the past few days; we’ve done some team bonding exercises,” Waterloo’s Leah Herrfort says. “We’ve learned a lot about each other, and the fact you can go five games in seven days with the same group of girls forces you to get close to each other.”
From sharing the drive from Ottawa to Potsdam together, the joy of the Opening Ceremony and several intense team-building activities, the Canadian team approaches the medal round, coming off a resounding win over the U.S. as a truly cohesive unit, and one that appreciates every aspect of the roster.
“It’s definitely the little things like the blocked shots, the battles in the corners, that ultimately allow us to win games,” Dominico says, appreciating her team’s defensive efforts. “We’re lucky to have gritty players on our team who go into corners and take those hits.”