In falling short of victory, Canadian women polish game for Olympics at Capital City Challenge

Canada's Renata Fast (14) celebrates her goal with teammates. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Considering the tournament was thrown together from necessity, the Capital City Challenge delivered a spirited hockey showcase and just might have helped Canada’s national women’s team fine-tune its game for the Olympics.

With travel and health restrictions cancelling the scheduled under-17 international event, three Canadian rosters built from a national pool of U17 boys played the Canadian women in a six-day tournament that ended Wednesday in Ottawa. The talent was first-rate, and the finishes dramatic.

Though the Canadian women did not register a win in their four games against future NHL prospects, they were part of a thrilling semifinal against Team Black. After falling behind 3-0, the women’s team rallied to force overtime, before losing during 3-on-3 play on a goal from Zach Benson, the tournament’s leading scorer.

In the gold medal game, Canada Black defeated Canada Red in a wild ending Wednesday evening. After giving up the go-ahead goal in the final 29 seconds of the third period for a 4-3 Red lead, Benson scored off the faceoff to tie the game with just 0.4 seconds left on the clock. It was Benson’s seventh of the tournament. Calum Ritchie scored on an OT breakaway to send Team Black into delirium with the 5-4 win.

For the women’s team, winning here took a back seat to the goal of sharpening skills and working on details in the runup to the Beijing Olympic hockey tournament in February. Canada won’t face players like the U17 boys in Beijing, but that doesn’t mean the women couldn’t go to school on this unique challenge.

As a measure of how they adapted to playing against these big, fast U17 players, the women threw a scare into Canada Black in the semis, behind the spectacular goaltending of Ann-Renee Desbiens. The Canadian women had a chance to win the game late in the third period, but Rebecca Johnston was stopped on a breakaway.

The women were down 3-0 early on, while being outshot 10-0 before changing the momentum of the game.

“I think our team, through the world championships in August and since then, there’s been so much belief in our group even when we do go down a couple of goals,” said defenceman Renata Fast of Burlington.

Fast spoke about the team having to adapt its game against these elite teens.

“I think it took a little bit to realize how we were going to play, and be most effective against them,” Fast said. “They’re big and strong and we realized we were not going to be able to push them off the puck, we had to attack their sticks . . . and that helped our game a lot.”

With a quick turnaround from the Tuesday night overtime, the women ran out of gas in the bronze medal game, a 5-1 loss to Team White on Wednesday afternoon. But until then, there had been steady growth in their level of play.

“We’re the national women’s team playing against the U17 national program,” said women’s head coach Troy Ryan, following the overtime loss. “It’s a little bit unprecedented. We can’t draw on past experience, so our goal with the unknown was just to get better and learn as much as we could through the event.

“I think we did get better each game, so we’ve accomplished that. Obviously, it would have been nice to finish it out with a win, just for some validation for the girls, but I think they understand that they’ve improved from this experience.”

Earlier, Ryan touched on the value of the women being “out of their comfort zone” in facing the size and speed of these male prospects, some of whom will feature prominently in the 2023 NHL draft.

“It gives us another chance to defend more,” Ryan said.

The women also learned how to create chances with less time and space with which to work. Captain Marie-Philip Poulin was the most adept at it, working the puck in the offensive zone and finding open teammates.

On the boys side, Canada Black captain Cameron Allen of Toronto was a prominent feature, showcasing his outstanding skating and breakout abilities from the back end. Allen called it an “honour” to face Team Canada.

“We didn’t really know what to expect, but I definitely gained a lot of respect for the players on that team,” Allen said on a post-game Zoom. “They use their sticks so well. There is less body contact, but they are so skilled and are able to strip the puck off you pretty well. This experience is going to make watching the Olympics that much better.”

Kris Mallette, the Canada Red head coach from Kelowna, B.C., won’t soon forget this experience.

“The fact that we are playing a small role in preparing (the women’s team) for competition at the Olympics is special,” Mallette says. “I have young daughters, and this is a big deal for me having a young player that aspires to be in their position one day. It was really neat to be a part of and for our players it is such a unique opportunity. We had to adjust our game to some degree in regards to the physicality, but I thought we were outplayed in that area of the game. If our players did not already have a great amount of respect for the women’s team, they certainly do now.”

While the U17 players return to their junior programs, the national women’s team gets a short break before resuming their Rivalry Series with games against Team USA in St. Louis, beginning Dec. 15.

Canadian women are a family

To prepare for the Olympics, Canada’s women’s team and staff left their families, homes and jobs in July to “centralize” with the national team in Calgary. Since then, the women have held camps, played exhibition games, an August world championship (won by Canada) and a Rivalry Series against the national teams of the US and Finland. To be sure, there are challenges in isolating as a team for this long, but benefits as well.

“I think the cool thing is that we’ve built this kind of family group throughout Worlds and through this centralization,” says forward Jamie Lee Rattray of Kanata. “We’re all human, we do get homesick and things like that, but it’s been very easy to come to work every day and have ‘family’ members around you.

“We all made sacrifices to be at this level but we wouldn’t do it if we didn’t love what we do. It’s been pretty great.”

Desbiens= très biens

While Poulin is clearly Canada’s best female player, goaltender Ann-Renée Desbiens could be just as important in the drive for gold in Beijing. Desbiens of La Malbaie, Que. played brilliantly in her two starts, delivering a .925 save percentage while facing 106 shots in two games. She stopped 98 of them, all against the U17 Team Black that would go on to win gold.

“Every game we play is very different, but any time you have an opportunity to play against high-level competition, you just try your best and try to give your team an opportunity to win,” Desbiens said, after stopping 52 of 56 shots she faced in her first outing.

“I would not necessarily say it was the best performance of my career, but I had a lot of fun out there and it was a big challenge.”

In the semifinal, the women were outshot 50-20, but Desbiens shut down Canada Black for the final two periods to carry her team to overtime. An inspiring performance.

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