Canadian forward Haley Irwin returns after 2-year battle with injuries
Her grooming as national team's next leader stalled in 2014
Haley Irwin was captain of the Canadian women's hockey team the last time she wore the Maple Leaf.
Her grooming as one of the national team's next leaders began in 2014, but went on a two-year hiatus because of a concussion followed by hip surgery.
The 28-year-old forward from Thunder Bay, Ont., is back wearing Canada's colours again for this week's Four Nations Cup in Vierumaki, Finland.
Canada opens the annual tournament Tuesday against the host Finns. Defending champion U.S. and Sweden are also in the field.
The 2014 Four Nations Cup in Kamloops, B.C., was the last tournament Irwin played for Canada. The road back felt uphill at times.
"It truly has been a very long time," Irwin told The Canadian Press. "Your teammates, your camaraderie in the dressing room and that feeling of family and the competition, it's something I've known my whole life.
"It's not to say that I never truly understood what it meant to wear the Leaf or appreciated it before, but when something is taken away from you ... whether it's through injury or not, you have a different perspective."
Irwin and Hamilton defenceman Laura Fortino were named assistants to captain Marie-Philip Poulin of Beauceville, Que., for the Four Nations in Finland.
2-time Olympic gold medallist
Irwin won Olympic gold in both 2010 and 2014. The five-foot-seven 170-pound forward has 32 goals and 37 assists in 82 games for Canada over her career.
She's a power and sandpaper player. Hard to knock off the puck, Irwin's scoring touch was still intact at the national team's camp in September, according to head coach Laura Schuler.
"She's a kid you're scared to play against," Schuler said. "She plays with this intensity and this fierceness. Yet, she knows how to play with composure. If someone takes the puck from her, she gets it back.
"She hasn't been in game shape for a bit. Her ability to find the back of the net has always been there. It was very good to see that part of her game was still there."
The Canadian women can use her offensive spark as they've produced just one goal over their last two games against the world champion Americans.
Irwin was a part of Canada's last win over the Americans, which was the 3-2 shootout victory in the 2014 Four Nations final. The Canadians have lost six in a row to the U.S. since then.
"Our goal is to obviously win this tournament and beat everybody that we go up against," Schuler said.
Irwin suffered a concussion in January 2015, while playing for the Canadian Women's Hockey League's Calgary Inferno. As she closed in on clearance to play later that year, a chronic hip injury blossomed into a condition that required surgery.
Of the two maladies, rehabilitating the hip was more straightforward. Concussions can be a one-step-forward, two-steps-back injury.
Irwin wondered whether she would be able to return to the sport and what her personal future might hold.
"I worked a lot with [a] sports psych during that time and one of the questions she asked me was, 'Who are you without hockey?"' Irwin recalled. "That one stumps you good.
"You learn that your identity is mostly what you do on a daily basis, but there are other aspects of your life that are just as important and that make you tick.
"I had to stop trying to become a healthy hockey player again. I had to become a healthy person again. That helped me get through days."
Canada meets Sweden on Wednesday and concludes the preliminary round Friday against the U.S. The top two teams in the round robin meet in Saturday's final.