CALGARY — Hockey Canada is beefing up the national women’s team’s schedule to try to fill a void.
Canada will play in the Four Nations Cup in Sweden in November, face the Americans in an exhibition series in December and be the host country at the 2020 world championships in Halifax.
But Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada’s director of women’s national teams, says there will be an additional seven, four-day camps this winter in Calgary, Toronto and Montreal. National-team players will also have access to three skills sessions per week with coaches in those cities, compared to once a week last season.
The national team’s busier schedule comes after Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced on the eve of April’s world championship that it would fold after 12 years. The announcement rocked not only 18 CWHL players on Canada’s roster, but also those wanting to join the league upon graduation from university.
"It’s really just to supplement the athletes lacking in ice time who don’t have a league to play in," Kingsbury told The Canadian Press.
"Hockey Canada has been working, from their budgeting standpoint, on being able to support us more this year."
National-team players have joined others from Canada, the United States and Europe who say they won’t play in any North American league until there is one that is financially viable and sustainable.
Those roughly 200 players, which include Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin and American stars Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield, established a Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association. PWHPA members refuse to play in the U.S.-based NWHL entering its fifth season.
Kingsbury says Hockey Canada’s plans will complement the Dream Gap Tour and supplemental ice time announced earlier this week by the PWHPA. The union that formed in the wake of the CWHL’s demise has organized weekend games for its members in Toronto, Hudson, N.H., Chicago, Boston and San Jose, Calif., in late September and October.
The PWHPA says more tour dates will be announced later.
The Canadian team’s regular fall camp is coming up Sept. 9-15 in Liverpool, N.S., and its extra camps are scheduled for weekdays to avoid conflict with the PWHPA’s tour.
"Our mandate was to never interfere with what they were going to do," Kingsbury said. "We would never want the national team to take away from that movement.
"I think what they’re doing is fantastic and it’s a great support to women’s hockey right now and the landscape that they’re in."
The PWHPA is also providing twice-weekly ice times for its members in eight hubs across North America.
Unifor, the largest private sector union in Canada, is sponsoring both the Dream Gap Tour’s Toronto stop Sept. 20-22 as well as PWHPA’s ice rentals in Calgary, Montreal and two centres in Toronto.
The women want to keep their game skills sharp to impress hockey fans and stakeholders in those tour games.
"This whole setup is about providing the opportunities the players need to train and compete," PWHPA president Jayna Hefford said.
So between Hockey Canada’s augmented schedule and the PWHPA’s offerings, Canada’s national team players will have multiple opportunities to skate this winter.
But it will be difficult to replace the 24 games plus playoffs that disappeared from their lives when the CWHL shuttered.
"I don’t think we’re going to miss on the volume of ice time," Kingsbury said.
"They’re going to have find ways, and we’re going to have to find ways as well in the structure that we have in mini-camps, to make it as competitive as possible."
Players may also have to seek out practice and playing opportunities during lulls in the season so their skills don’t erode.
"If we have a couple days where we’re not skating, if there’s an opportunity to skate with another team or get on the ice then for sure I’ll be doing that," said Canadian forward Rebecca Johnston of Sudbury, Ont.
"I know some girls that are in remote areas and not in a bigger hub will probably be skating with other teams so they can stay on the ice."