Capital City Challenge pits Canadian women’s national team vs. U17 men

Team Canada's women's squad is taking on three teams of U17 boys at the Capital City Challenge. (CP/file)

In the past 20 months of a global health crisis, most of the world has learned to adapt and move forward.

The world of hockey is no different.

And so it is that a one-time only tournament known as the Capital City Challenge has been launched at TD Place in Ottawa Nov. 26-Dec. 1 to serve two basic functions:

1. Give Canada’s national women’s team an opportunity to engage in some high-level pre-Olympic competition while breaking up the pattern of playing Team USA.

2. Provide a showcase for Canada’s elite under-17 male players who have had to endure a second year of a cancelled World U17 event because of the pandemic.

Et voila: The end result is this six-day tournament involving the Canadian women’s squad and a pool of 66 U17 players split up among three rosters — Team Black, Team White and Team Red. The round-robin gets underway at noon Friday and will finish with semifinal and final games Tuesday and Wednesday.

Canadian hockey legend Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a management consultant for the women’s team, is among those bullish on this experiment, a creative change of gears in a lingering pandemic.

“This is a unique format that comes about because of COVID-19, but playing against the U17s gives us a chance to improve our game,” Campbell told Sportsnet.ca. “They have a skill set and a longer reach that helps make the details in our game better. Our priority is to make our game better, and also continue to grow the game.”

Tenacious Canadian forward Jamie Lee Rattray concurs.

Rattray’s return to her hometown for a Tuesday game against the USA (a 2-0 American win at a sold-out TD Place) and now this extended tournament have allowed her some rare, albeit brief time with her Kanata family. Between events, she was able to fit in a leisurely walk with her father.

Now, it’s back to business.

“I think for us, it’s just fun finding a new challenge,” Rattray, 29, said over the phone, after an off-ice workout Thursday. “It’s really important for us to be able to adapt our game to different styles, and I think that’s what this week is going to be.

“We’ve been able to play some international games (part of the Rivalry Series) the last couple of weeks and I think the boys are going to give us a different look. When we played the Junior A teams out in Alberta, we learned a lot about ourselves. This will be no different.”

Rattray views it as the best young Canadian males under 17, thrown together for a single series versus an elite women’s group that has played together for years in some cases, and has been assembled for an entire season in the run-up to the Olympics. Who wins out? Exceptional young individual talent or a cohesive, motivated unit? Both sides have skill to showcase.

“I expect the pace will be very high,” Rattray said. “I’m sure these guys know how to move around the ice very well, and our games against the U.S. are always high-paced, very intense, and your adrenaline’s always running. So, I think it will be similar.”

If the teenage boys were disappointed that the U17 challenge has been cancelled yet again, the disappointment doesn’t show. It could be worse than hanging out with a bunch of talented peers for a look-at-me-now series of games.

“They’ve been really responsive,” said Team White head coach Rob Wilson, whose day job is to coach the OHL Peterborough Petes.

“I think they’re all excited to be here. It’s been a lot of fun. So far, we’ve had a couple of days on the ice — we’re trying not to overload them — but we’ve had a lot of fun with them.”

Since March of 2020, everyone in the game, from the NHL level to minor hockey has had to change schedules and accept postponements. As Wilson says, we’re past the point of thinking about “what could have been” and on to making the best of what is available.

And what is available to this group of young men is an opportunity to play against Canada’s very best female players, including Marie-Philip Poulin, who may be the best player in the entire women’s game.

“I think both groups are excited,” Wilson said. “I think it’s a good challenge for everybody. Let’s face it, you’re playing against Olympians, you’re playing against a team that’s getting ready to go to Beijing. It’s an awesome opportunity.”

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And if the male teens have to adapt a bit to the rule against “body checking,” they are nevertheless being encouraged to engage in body contact and gritty play.

“I’ve watched a fair bit of women’s hockey and it’s pretty physical,” Wilson said. “I know that big body check (into the boards) or the open ice hit isn’t supposed to be there, but they battle hard.

“We’ve got to come battle here. We’re not looking to make massive hits, but if you think the women aren’t going to battle in front of the net and they’re not going to battle for position and for pucks, you’ve got another thing coming.

“I don’t think it’s that big of a change (for the guys) because I think the compete level from both teams will be high.”

There’s plenty at stake for every player involved here.

The U17s are getting a taste of wearing Canada’s national sweater and would like to wear it again in the U18 program and onward to the world juniors. This is an important showcase with plenty of scouts looking on. Since 2001, 10 U17 Canadian players have gone on to be drafted first overall, including Connor McDavid, John Tavares and Nathan MacKinnon.

For the Canadian women, roster spots are up for grabs and players are trying to set themselves up for an Olympic tournament that looms larger on the calendar with each passing week. Winning is not necessarily the end goal, here. The Canadian women were 0-5 in games against BCHL and AJHL Tier 2 teams in October and November, but should benefit in the long run from being pushed.

“All the games we’ve played, and the practices — we’ve talked all along about it being a body of work,” said Canadian head coach Troy Ryan.

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“There’s no emphasis on any one part of the centralization process, it’s the body of work. And each one of these is just a stage in that whole process.”

With single game tickets as low as $5, it’s an opportunity to see some of Canada’s best talent, male and female, in a fan-friendly junior hockey rink.

The U17s include CHL first-overall draft choice Ethan Gauthier (Sherbrooke, QMJHL) and defenceman Oliver Bonk, the son of former Ottawa Senators centre Radek Bonk. The leading point producer in the U17 group is 6-foot-3 forward Matthew Wood of the BCHL Victoria Grizzlies. Wood has 14 goals and 26 points in just 12 games.

Poulin, Brianne Jenner, Natalie Spooner and Kanata’s Rattray are just a few of the many recognizable names on the women’s roster.

“We can’t wait to have this new experience,” Jenner said. “We have played against several Junior A teams lately, but this challenge will certainly allow us to prepare and improve for the Olympics.”

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