LAKE PLACID, NEW YORK – Isabella Pozzi sat on the steps of Lake Placid’s Herb Brooks Arena — everything was quiet after the opening ceremony. She had missed the bus back to Potsdam, New York, where the women’s hockey team was based.
Canada walked into the opening ceremony with one of the largest delegations of any nation, 121 student-athletes, to be exact. Yet, there was a rush to get to the event for the men’s and women’s hockey teams coming from two hours north, and on the way back, not everyone got onto the bus amid the post-ceremony chaos.
Pozzi, alongside Saskatchewan teammate Camryn Drever, Queen’s Scout Watkins-Southward and Guelph’s Hannah Tait, sat in the arena while their teammates made their way to the SUNY-Potsdam dorms on the bus. They didn’t get back until just after midnight.
“It was funny, a little moment of adversity that brought us together,” Pozzi told 49 Sports.
With gold medals hanging around their necks on the blueline at Herb Brooks Arena, the team was closer than ever. Just two weeks prior, they all met for the first time, convening in Ottawa for a short training camp before travelling to Northern New York to start the Lake Placid 2023 FISU World University Games.
It was Canada’s first gold medal in men’s or women’s hockey since both teams topped the podium 10 years ago at the Trentino 2013 Games in Italy.
There will always be a challenge in a short tournament with an all-star team that didn’t have much time to gel, and there isn’t much hockey work to do for the coaching staff. Instead, it’s about building team dynamics and setting up the group to play to their potential.
“We wanted them to come together both in terms of the goal, come together tactically, and we also wanted them come together emotionally,” head coach Greg Bowles said. “We really focused on that last bit because until you’re connected emotionally, you’re never going to succeed.”
The schedule had been set for a while; Team Canada was to face Slovakia the night before the opening ceremony, giving the group a look at what the FISU Games could be like, even though they were a distance from Lake Placid’s re-born international Games heartbeat.
The jersey night and a word from the G.O.A.T
Gathered in the locker room the night before their opening game, Bowles called each team member name by name — giving them, for most, their first Team Canada jersey.
There weren’t many dry eyes in the room as they got to pull on the same hockey sweater that defines the careers of Hayley Wickenheiser, Marie-Philip Poulin and Angela James.
“Canada and the Hockey Canada logo are almost synonymous,” Bowles said. “This matters, this really matters to the women in there, and they know it. So we try to hit home on those keynotes that it doesn’t just represent them, their program and their families but every single woman thats wore that jersey beforehand.”
That night, the Canadian coaching staff tapped Concordia’s Emmy Fecteau as their team captain. She got to stitch a “C” to her jersey alongside Pozzi and Toronto’s Celine Frapper, who were named alternates.
“I was really surprised, I had a meeting with the coaches, and I was pumped, and I think we are ready to get things going, and I’m excited,” Fecteau said at the time. “I will not change what I do; I will try to lead by example and try to work hard on and off the ice and keep things simple.”
As word got out that she was indeed the captain of Canada’s FISU Games journey, Canadian senior national team captain Marie-Philip Poulin reached out to Fecteau just to make sure she was good with the role and comfortable leading her nation onto the ice.
“She congratulated me, said good luck and that I should enjoy it and wanted to make sure I was okay with the role,” Fecteau said.
With a moment for every student-athlete to get their Team Canada jersey and take a once-in-a-lifetime photo, it was just another step in Canada’s journey to a cohesive group, allowing every player to play to their potential.
For the Canadian group, however, the idea of wearing that logo and the Hockey Canada logo wasn’t an easy one. As an organization, Hockey Canada has been in turmoil, failing to keep all athletes safe while also prioritizing keeping men’s hockey athletes safe, despite many victims of sexual assault and a slush fund that took percentages of youth hockey registration fees.
Yet, while not all players discussed the issues surrounding the logo and the organization, it was a formative discussion for some, particularly the coaching staff, who struggled with it.
“The logo still needs to represent something, and when certain challenges come up, the world needs leaders,” Bowles said. “We figured, what better to lead this Hockey Canada logo or that element forward than a bunch of strong women, and not only a bunch of strong women, but top hockey players who are also top students.”
A tournament begins, and the letter moment
With their jerseys hung above their stalls with the care of equipment manager Matt Sinclar, the student-athletes prepared to take on Team Slovakia in their first game of the tournament.
While they eventually came away with the 4-0 win, the first period made it clear that the team hadn’t played much with each other. At that point, the athletes, ecstatic to be there, didn’t have the chemistry they did in their semifinal win over Slovakia, let alone the final.
“I think we needed to get the first period out of the way, get everyone’s feet wet, get in the room and have a little chat and I think we got stronger as the game went on,” SMU Huskies forward Shae Demale said. “A little communication on what went well, what didn’t go well and what we could do moving forward.”
From a little taste of the Games to the opening ceremony and getting stuck the next day, the Canadian group continuously grew closer. After all, they had four other group games to play in a packed schedule with just two days off.
Yet even though the tournament had started, the team building never stopped — and for team building, the Canadians needed to trust one another, both on and off the ice, if they were going to make a run to the gold medal.
The staff assigned each Canadian athlete to write a letter to their 10-year-old self about the challenges they’ve faced and the leaders they’ve encountered. After reflecting on for many of them in the last decade, they all went to write on their own time before sharing with the group on Jan. 15.
“I talked about how things didn’t always go as planned,” Nipissing’s Maria Dominico said. “I tried to make the [Canadian] development teams at the U18 and U22, and I got cut from both, so just how I tried to say positive throughout those times.”
“It really helped us get to know each other on a deeper level, and the letter activity was a big moment for everyone to connect and be vulnerable with each other, and it really brought us closer as a group.”
From the opening game, the cohesiveness of goaltending also grew. While UNB’s Kendra Woodland got the start, she vacated the crease in the third period, giving Saskatchewan’s Camryn Drever a chance to play with the maple leaf on her chest.
In less than a week, the team was starting to come together, something Bowles had emphasized. He knew the players had the skill, but it was the team’s connection off the ice that would lead them through the tournament.
A goaltending union and a gold medal preview
Although the letter activity was pivotal for the group, the moments continued, on and off the ice, and they came together through each game — with every player understanding their role on the team as they approached each day with a common goal.
Canada showed growth in the second game, downing Czechia 5-1, with uOttawa’s Aurelie Dubuc taking a moment in the crease before Canada moved on to face Japan in the third game of group play.
For Guelph Gryphon Hannah Tait, the Japan game had been circled on the schedule for months. And for the Canadian team, showing progress each day, it was a preview for the gold medal game — not that they knew that.
Tait got the chance to face her Gryphons teammate Chihiro Suzuki, who is the lone U SPORTS player on Japan and one of the few Canadian university student-athletes representing another country at the Lake Placid 2023 FISU Games.
“It’s definitely exciting seeing a familiar face out there,” Tait told 49 Sports. “Obviously, it’s a bit weird because we’re so used to playing together, so it’s funny seeing her out there on the other team, but it was a ton of fun.”
Canada went on to win the game decisively over Japan, although Japan provided Canada with a true test.
For Suzuki on Team Japan, playing in the gold medal game seemed like a distant dream. “I might be a bit less giggly that game if there’s a medal on the line,” Suzuki said alongside Tait.
The American test
On the backend of wins against Slovakia, Czechia, Japan and Great Britain, Team Canada faced their toughest test in front of a sold-out crowd at Maxcy Hall in Potsdam, taking on an American team that needed at least a point to advance.
Taking the ice to chants of “USA! USA! USA!” many on the Canadian team approached a crowd unlike they had seen anytime before — larger than any U SPORTS playoffs could ever be, with thousands, decked in red, white and blue, cheering on the Americans.
Once again, Tait took centre stage, scoring an opening goal against Team USA in a tight-checking matchup, while Dominico scored the winning goal in the final frame.
Team USA needed a miracle; the Canadians ensured it wouldn’t happen.
“I don’t want to sound too harsh, but being rivals, it definitely is a good feeling,” Dominico said of scoring the winning goal to eliminate Team USA. “Every game we play is important, but we were really looking forward to this game and playing out rivals.”
With a crowd experience and a hard-fought effort to get the win, Canada continued to grow close in all aspects. Their on-ice performance continued to develop, moving through the four-phase plan laid out by Bowles when the team met in Ottawa.
In the opener against Slovakia, it was phase two, and the powerplay hadn’t been looked at. Yet as they closed group play against Team USA, they were much further 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,” Bowles said after the U.S. win.
Finally, a chance for Lake Placid
As soon as the Canadian team arrived back in Potsdam after the opening ceremony, they were desperate to get back to Lake Placid for the medal round and the vibrant theme of the Games that had taken over the whole town.
With an undefeated group stage, they made their way down the two-hour drive to the site of the 1980 Olympics, getting an opportunity to strive for a medal on the ice that became famous for USA men’s Hockey’s 1980 Olympic “Miracle on Ice,” win over the Soviet Union.
With smiles gleaming across their faces, Canada took the ice for the first time in Lake Placid, and although the ice wasn’t fantastic, it was spellbinding.
A day later, Canada pushed past Slovakia in the semi-final 6-1 while battling back from a deficit for the first time in the tournament, conceding the first goal and trailing at the first intermission.
“We took a moment and chatted about what we needed to do to get back to our style of Canadian hockey,” said Waterloo blueliner Carley Olivier of the quick shift in the semi-final. “That’s exactly what we did going into the second and third.”
From there, the golden goal only shined brighter.
The golden evening in Lake Placid
Bowles knew where his group was at, the players knew too — it was phase four, a chance to let things ride and finish the job towards the gold medal. Facing Japan and Tait’s teammate Suzuki once again, Canada needed just one more win to get the gold medal around their necks.
For an evening, maple leafs decked the halls and stands of Herb Brooks Arena, stars and stripes seldom seen, with Canadian athletes, delegates, family and fans packing the rink for one of the tournament’s largest crowds.
As well, tournament organizers assigned Canada the legendary Locker Room #5, home to Team USA at the 1980 Olympics and the Miracle on Ice team.
The first period didn’t start the way that they wanted to, however, with Japan holding them scoreless, despite Canada outplaying and outshooting their opponents. A slow first period wasn’t new. However, Canada only scored five times in the opening frame all tournament.
“After the first, we had to adapt a bit, and we had to play more supportive to each other,” Fecteau said. “And after the second period, we were working together and working harder than them, and it paid off.”
76 seconds into the second period, magic struck. Audrey Anne-Veillete, who had represented Canada at the youth levels, got the puck on the right wing and fired a shot into the goal. The goal proved to be golden, as Canada fought their way to an eventual 5-0 win.
Dominico and Fecteau also scored, alongside Maggy Burbidge and Elizabeth Mura.
“Speechless, amazing, the best feeling in the entire world, this is something I’ve dreamt of this since I started playing hockey,” Queen’s forward Scout Watkins-Southward said. “This game, specifically the gold medal game of the second largest international competition in the world, was definitely one of the greatest experiences and opportunities I’ve ever had.”
When the final buzzer sounded through the hallowed halls of the home of USA’s “Miracle on Ice,” Canada established a little piece of home in celebration as they danced, laughed and cried in the locker room before the entire team signed a Lake Placid 2023 flag to give to the team’s Games attaché, nicknamed “Sparky.”
As they joined the likes of their Olympic heroes and the women before them to win gold for Team Canada, Poulin hadn’t forgotten about the group either.
“She wrote us, she wrote to the leadership group, and she asked how we were doing, and she told us good luck, and it was really nice of her,” Fecteau said.
For the first time in 10 years, Canada captured the gold medal in women’s hockey at the FISU Winter Games, but for many, it was more than a gold medal, yet a new family through sport formed in just two weeks, all striving towards a common goal.
“This group has shown me so many different people but also new ways to learn and ways to grow, and they’ve taught me so much,” Watkins-Southward said. “I can’t explain how much they’ve given me and how much this team has provided me in my life and as a hockey player.”
“It’s not the end of this group, but the start of the rest of our lives”