'You're a little in awe': Rookies meet their idols on Canadian women's hockey team
Veterans are 'unbelievable people' who 'genuinely care' about the newbies
To the uninitiated, strolling into the dressing room of Canada's Olympic women's hockey team for the first time can be a tad intimidating.
Look, over in the corner of the room, there's Marie-Philip Poulin. All Team Canada's respected captain and renowned leader has done is score the gold medal-winning goal in each of the past two Winter Olympics. Pretty much punched her ticket into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the process.
Hey, isn't that Natalie Spooner and Meaghan Mikkelson? Three Olympic gold medals between them, and they raised their personal profiles by competing in the TV show The Amazing Race Canada. Darn near won the thing.
Wow, look, Shannon Szabados. She not only backstopped Team Canada to back-to-back Olympic gold medals, but is also one of the few women who has successfully made the leap to playing in a men's professional hockey league.
So you'll forgive the newcomers attempting to make Canada's 2018 Olympic team if they are a little nervous in the presence of their high-profile teammates.
"You're always a little in awe, for sure," says forward Jillian Saulnier, one of 12 players experiencing what Hockey Canada calls its "centralization" program for the first time. "There is a huge level of respect for the players that have played before; we're so proud of what they have done and it's an honour to be here trying to follow in their footsteps. I think it's important to have a certain level of confidence here. We continually remind ourselves we're all here for a certain reason."
'Unbelievable athletes... unbelievable people'
"Here" is Calgary, where the 28 players who are trying out for the Canadian women's Olympic team have gathered, as they do every four years in preparation for the Olympic Games.
Along with Saulnier, other centralized first-timers include goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens, defencemen Erin Ambrose, Renata Fast, Micah Hart and Halli Krzysaniak and forwards Emily Clark, Amy and Sarah Potomak (they're sisters), Laura Stacey, Blayre Turnbull and Sarah Nurse.
For a player like Stacey, a 23-year-old from Kleinburg, Ont., who is expected to make her mark as a scoring forward, walking in step with her more famous teammates initially gave her the jitters.
"Sometimes it's hard to put into words, the feeling you get when you get the chance to play with and against some of these girls," says Stacey, who had 11 goals and 24 points in 20 games with Brampton of the Canadian Women's Hockey League last season. "They are unbelievable athletes, but the great thing is they are unbelievable people, too."
Though there is stiff competition for jobs and the players are aware cuts will be made, the returning players on Team Canada go out of their way to make the newbies feel welcome. The importance of becoming a cohesive unit as quickly as possible is drilled into their heads, returnees and newcomers alike, knowing what lies ahead — likely a one-game showdown with the powerful United States for the Olympic gold medal.
Spooner, 27, is aiming to play in her second Olympics and knows she is expected to be a big part of the leadership group for Canada. Therefore, she understands the importance of cozying up to the kids.
"I was treated so well by the veterans when I first joined the team so I am trying to do the same for the younger girls," says the Toronto native. "I try to make them feel comfortable to perform their best. One of the biggest things Hayley Wickenheiser told me when I was a rookie was to not worry about what anybody thinks; just go out there and play my game because that's why they brought me here."
Fast says the coaching staff has made it abundantly clear that every player is expected to compete at the highest level daily, regardless of their experience.
"That means you have to use your strengths and even though you are a younger player, you have to push the pace of everyone else in front of you," says the 23-year-old Hamilton, Ont., native. "For instance, my game is speed so I have to play that way and that will help elevate everyone else's game. It's a chain effect and it can start from the top or from the bottom. It doesn't matter how experienced you are or how new you are to the program."
Ambrose says the veterans on Team Canada go out of their way to make the younger players feel welcome and part of the team.
"We have such a great leadership group with so much experience," says the 23-year-old Keswick, Ont., native. "I think the biggest thing is, they genuinely care for us. Our leaders display that on a day-to-day basis with how much they care and how much they want everybody to do well."