Brie Stairs surveys the field during a test match in Santiago, Chile in January, 2018. Esteban Araya/Photo
When Giles Bonnet walked onto the pitch at Club Manquehue in Santiago two weeks ago, he said he was like déjà vu. It was at the same pitch 16 years ago where he coached his first game for the Belgian Men’s National Team. This time, he was coaching the Canadian Women’s National Team to an undefeated test series against host-nation, Chile.
Certainly, having a new coach can be a challenge, but according to Dani Hennig, veteran Canadian defender, having someone come in and provide a fresh perspective on the team can also be enlightening.
“The team is always looking to get better so bringing in someone who has new ideas and a different structure and style of play is fun and exciting,” Hennig said. “Giles came in with a lot of enthusiasm. He had players playing in different spots and the team really embraced it.”
Bonnet echoed Hennig’s sentiments from a coaching perspective. He said the team responded well to the heavy workload and changes to the play-structure.
“What stood out for me was the receptiveness of the group of new ideas and changes,” Bonnet said. “They are extremely motivated and applied themselves in a very professional way.”
As any athlete knows, having a new coach can be a shock to the system. And although Hennig said there can be growing pains, she thinks the fresh set of eyes can only benefit the team and the athletes.
“As high-performance athletes, it is sometimes scary having someone new come in and watch your game and challenge you to be better in different ways,” Hennig said. “But ultimately, it’s what we crave.”
Building on a strong foundation
Canada came into this test series ranked 21st in the world, six spots behind Chile. Although the test matches didn’t count for official world ranking points, Canada made a profound statement that they belong inside the top-15. For Hennig, it was great to see the positive results and she knows the team still has lots of room for improvement.
“We’ve always had the belief in ourselves that we can compete with the top teams in the world,” Hennig said. “Now we need to develop the consistency so we can stay at the top level. The positive results against a good team really reinforces our belief in ourselves.”
According to Bonnet, the focus in these early tours isn’t necessarily about the results rather the process. They had clear goals set for each test match and he was happy to see the style and structure being embraced by the team.
“Our focus in the first three matches were about implementation. In the fourth game, we focused on performance and it was pleasing to see the team produce in this match,” Bonnet said.
The team had its work cut out for it heading into the training tour: A long travel schedule, a heavy training workload, a new coach bringing in new ideas and five test matches against a quality opponent. And while hockey is a team game and being on tour is a team event, it’s worth noting some important individual milestones that came from last week’s tour.
Vancouver’s Izzy Fraser and Cowichan’s Sara Goodman played in their first senior international matches on their first tour with the senior national team. Every time a player plays their first cap, it validates the years of dedication of the athlete, coaches and supporters through high school, regional, provincial, junior national team and more.
Veteran goalkeeper, Kaitlyn Williams played her 100th senior national match. Her father flew down to Chile to watch his daughter compete in her milestone match. Hennig has been a long-time teammate and friend of Williams and said she’s been an inspiration to her teammates for years.
“I played with [Kaitlyn] at UVic and we both got our start on the national team around the same time. It’s been really amazing to play alongside her for this entire journey,” Hennig said. “She works so hard to always be better and she’s a great leader for other players and goalkeepers to look up to.”
Schedule heats up moving forward
The Women’s National Team has a stacked schedule moving forward. They may have just arrived home yesterday but take off again in two weeks for Chula Vista, California for a 10-day training tour featuring test matches against the US. Following that, they are off to Australia for the Commonwealth Games and then straight on to New Zealand for Hawkes Bay. According to Hennig, competition is a driver of improvement and she’s looking forward to all the game-play.
“There’s no substitute for game play. Getting to play a lot these days will be really good for the team. We need to continue to learn to play and perform in pressure environments,” Hennig said.
The team will take the positive results from Chile and continue to push forward into the next phase of their year. Bonnet said he’s excited to continue working with the group on applying new strategies and changes. He expects the positive results to continue as the team will face some top competition in the next few months.
“We are on a sharp learning curve and have selected an accelerated program for this team. We will attempt to close the competitive gap with the top teams and we are looking forward to the upcoming events,” Bonnet said.