Canada-USA Women’s Worlds Preview: Spooner and Small weigh in on the final

Canada's Brianne Jenner (19) works the puck against United States' Kelly Pannek (12) during the first period of a women's exhibition hockey game ahead of the Beijing Olympics, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021, in Maryland Heights, Mo. (AP Photo/Michael Thomas)

Natalie Spooner will be wearing her jersey on Sunday afternoon, and she’ll be yelling at a giant projector screen in the backyard of her home in Komoka, Ont., while she watches her teammates battle the Americans for a world championship gold medal in Denmark. 

For the first time in more than a decade, Spooner — who’ll be cheering for Canada along with her husband, her parents and some neighbours — won’t be a big part of the action herself. And that, sports fans, hasn’t been easy so far.

“It’s way more stressful watching,” says the two-time Olympic and world champion. The dynamic forward with the big smile made her debut at the worlds in 2011 and has been on every Canadian roster since, until this year. “Like, it’s so much more stressful.” 

Spooner is on the shelf because she’s six months pregnant, and expecting a son in December. The 31-year-old is on the ice twice a week, working on power skating and skills, but body contact isn’t exactly advised by a doctor. 

The new role as a fan is “weird,” Spooner admits, but also not. “I look at myself and like, imagine me hitting people with this belly — it would be interesting,” she says, laughing. “It makes it a little bit easier that I know why I’m not there. I miss the girls, the atmosphere, I miss competing and all that. But I try to keep in touch with the girls and see how it’s going over there.” 

Over there, it’s down to the final game, featuring the best rivalry in sport: Canada, the reigning world and Olympic champions, against an American team that earned the top seed in Denmark thanks to a 5-2 win over Canada in a preliminary round matchup. 

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To help set up Sunday’s gold medal final (the puck drops at 1:30 p.m. ET) Sportsnet caught up with Spooner, after she’d played a round of golf, along with another veteran of the Canadian national team, former goalie Sami Jo Small — a four-time world champ and two-time Olympic gold medallist — who kindly agreed to chat after a long shift with TSN. Like Spooner, Small will be watching the action Sunday, and very closely, while she offers crackerjack analysis as a panellist on TSN’s broadcast. 

Spooner and Small break down what they figure to be the differences in the game, they discuss players who’ve surprised them, which team has the edge in net, and they offer their completely biased predictions for who’s going home with those coveted gold medals. 

What’ll be the difference maker? 

Spooner: Establishing chemistry from top to bottom through the lines is really important. (Team Canada coach Troy Ryan) totally flipped the lineup in the quarter-final, so it’ll be really interesting to see the lines in the final. [In the quarter-final, for example, captain Marie-Philip Poulin had a new winger in Victoria Bach, and centre Sara Fillier, who’s been dynamite while averaging more than a point per game, had two new wingers]. 

If I look back to the Olympics one of the best things was, it was any of the four lines that could go out and score at any given time, all four lines were rolling. If we can get some chemistry between at least a few of the lines, I think it’ll keep the momentum of the game going in Canada’s favour. 

Small: What’s in the back of my mind is that the Canadians haven’t really found chemistry yet. Obviously they’ve won all their games but they’re just not quite clicking. They have some incredible individual efforts, and they have some sparks, they’re generating amazing plays, but it’s not sustained. I’m really curious going into the final if this is coach Ryan’s final lineup or is he holding his cards close to his chest so the Americans don’t see it?

I’m really curious to see what adjustments he can make to the team we saw in the prelim game against the Americans, to the final. He keeps us guessing, that’s for sure… I’m looking for coach Ryan to make some changes that will miraculously lead to the Canadians putting some pucks in the net and then they’ll just rely on [goalie] Ann-Renee [Desbiens] to be the backstop she can be.

Spooner: I think (coach Ryan) will go back to some old lines and have some new ones based off what he thought worked and didn’t work. 

He’s really good at telling players what you’re good at and what you need to bring to the team. Before the Olympics, this is how nice he is: He wrote us all individual notes about what you mean to the team and what you’re bringing. We each knew what our role was. You would just want to go through a brick wall because you know, this is what I can do, and we can win if we do these things. I think what he’s able to get out of his players is something special. 

Who has the edge between the pipes among probable starters, Nicole Hensley for the Americans and Ann Renee Desbiens for Canada? 

Spooner: Oh yeah, it’s Desbiens. Desbiens is a big game player. She makes saves out of nowhere to save the team. She gives our team a lot of confidence when she’s in net. For sure if she’s playing in the final, she’ll definitely do her part to make sure our team is winning that game.  

Small: Canada doesn’t have just the slight edge in goaltending, I would give them a large, sizeable advantage there. It isn’t her technique that makes Desbiens amongst the best in the world as a goalie, it is her confidence and her ability to stay calm in big moments and to just have that poise for her team. In conversations with [veteran Canadian defender] Renata Fast, she feels so confident back there with Ann Renee. It gives them this boost to have that extra bit of offence or pinch a little deeper. You just always know that no matter what, she’s going to be back there. 

Any surprises from either team? 

Small: It’s those younger American players to me that just have been amazing, with incredible performances on a big stage in their first major tournament. That was the question mark: can their young guns replace the veterans like a Brianna Decker [she’s out after breaking her leg at the Olympics], or a Megan Bozek [she retired post-Olympics]. The Americans had some huge losses and while you can’t replace players like that, what these young people have brought has really elevated this team, thanks to youth and exuberance but also performance. 

Taylor Heise has been incredible [she had a hat-trick in the quarter-final], and Hannah Bilka [who also had a hat-trick in the quarter-final] has been awesome. Lacey Eden has been great. Their young guns are really, really impressive. And [coach John Wroblewski] is using them in big roles, too. That doesn’t necessarily happen on the Canadian squad right away, you kind of work your way in, you owe your dues. But right away Hannah Bilka is playing alongside Hilary Knight and she’s playing lights out. 

Spooner: I know everyone on Team Canada is amazing, so there are no surprises. Ella Shelton has been really good on D. At the Olympics she was in and out of playing and not getting that much ice time, and now she’s playing with confidence and jumping in the play, she’s playing really well. You see all the regulars, they all look good: Laura Stacey looks really fast, [Sarah] Potomak scored that amazing goal [in the quarter-final], Bacher [Victoria Bach] has scored some really nice goals. I think if they can keep their confidence up and have that swagger, that’s going to be really good for the big game. 

Predictions, predictions…

Spooner: Ok, I’m going to go with Canada winning. I’m calling the most generic score because it feels like every game we play them is 3-2. So, let’s go with 3-2. This will happen in regulation. No overtime, please. 

Game-winner, I’d love to go with Pou [Poulin] or Fillier, but I think Fillier’s gonna score one of the earlier ones. Oh, there are so many options, this is really hard. Let’s go with Clarkie [Emily Clark]. She’s been playing third-line but I think it’s gonna be an effort goal, and we’re gonna need those effort goals where it’s just dirty around the net. 

Small: I’m going to go with Canada. Shots are going to be lop-sided, but Ann Renee Desbiens is going to come up huge and Sarah Nurse is going to score the game-winner. It’ll be 4-2 with an empty-netter. And yes, 100 per cent bias in that prediction [laughs].

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