When Canada took to the field last June at the Hockey Series Open in Mexico, they kicked off their Olympic qualification journey. That undefeated week in Salamanca seven months ago feels far removed now.
Since then, the Canadian Women’s National Team toured Europe, playing some of the best teams in the world; split themselves amongst teams in the Belgian top league for the best club experience; and defeated the World Cup bronze medallists, Spain, in a four-game test series before Christmas.
So, when the first whistle went on January 19th signalling the start of their China test-series, the whistle also blew, kicking off their final push for Olympic qualification. Canada took to the field ranked 21st in the world against a Chinese national side ranked 10th.
After a week of intense training, the test series began with Canada losing the first two games. The Chinese team played a very disciplined and structured style of hockey with everyone knowing their role and executing it well. This posed challenges for Canada in the first two outings. Canada adapted and responded with two wins of their own, forcing the ball into areas where they could generate turnovers and capitalized on quick counters.
Canada finished the series with a loss and a draw against the 10th-ranked Chinese national side, continuing to prove that this is a team that belongs firmly in the Olympic discussion. According to veteran midfielder Hannah Haughn, a large part of their training last fall was designed around creating solid scoring chances, something she thinks they did well during the China series.
“China is not an easy team to play against and we had to make a lot of changes tactically to break their press,” she said. “What was positive were the types of quality scoring chances we generated.”
36 athletes in total made the trip to China for the training tour and test matches. While the senior teams played their six capped test matches, a Junior Women’s National contingent battled against the Chinese U23 team. Having both the senior and junior athletes present on the same tour allowed for some quality integration including some junior-aged athletes playing up and getting their first senior caps.
UBC’s Margaret Pham, UVic’s Anna Mollenhauer and Princeton’s Elise Wong all received their first senior national team playing opportunities. Mollenhauer, whose mother, Nancy, is a Women’s National Team alumni and FHC Hall of Famer, said playing in her first internationally sanctioned senior match was a special feeling. Having her mother there in a managerial role with the team made it that much more special.
Elise Wong (left), Margaret Pham and Anna Mollenhauer played their first international matches in China. Photos/Tristan Urry
“It felt somewhat surreal to play for my country on the international stage, and it will certainly be a moment that I will never forget,” Mollenhauer said. “It was really special having my mom here on the field for this momentous occasion in my field hockey career.”
In addition to the three rookies kicking off their international careers, three veterans reached their 100th cap during the China tour. Steph Norlander, Amanda Woodcroft and Shanlee Johnston all hit the 100 threshold. Hannah Haughn, who has been a starter on Team Canada since 2012 jumped Steph Jameson and became the third-most capped Canadian woman of all time with 169, trailing only teammates Kate Wright and Dani Hennig.
Shanlee Johnston (left), Amanda Woodcroft and Steph Norlander all played their 100th cap last month during Team Canada’s training tour and test matches in China. Photos/Tristan Urry
With the athletes relocating back to their daily training environments, there will be a few months without international touring for the Women’s National Program. Most of the team will return to their Belgian clubs and a few will be back with their domestic clubs/university teams.
Looking forward, the WNT has two avenues to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games: through the FIH Hockey Series or through the Pan American Games. Their Hockey Series Final will be played in Valencia, Spain in June and the Pan American Games will be held in August in Lima, Peru. Schedule and competition information for those events will be posted when confirmed.
Kate Wright, Steph Norlander and Brie Stairs were fortunate enough to visit the Tokyo Olympic venues as a part of a Canadian Olympic Committee initiative in order to familiarize athletes/teams with the future games site. The timing worked well as the three were returning from the China training tour.
According to team captain, Kate Wright, the experience was unforgettable and ignited an extra-bit of motivation for them to push to return for the Games (not that it was needed.)
“We visited the hockey venue which is being built right now. Wow – goosebumps. Brie, Steph and I all envisioned ourselves walking into what will soon be the hockey stadium. I have to say, out of the whole trip, that moment was my favourite,” Wright said.
Photos from Norlander, Wright and Stairs’ familiarization trip to Tokyo. Photos/Submitted
With good fortune, the next time, the three of them step foot on that soil, they will be Olympians ready to take on the world in 2020. With lots still to be decided between now and then, Canada enters the next phase of qualification with confidence and a motivation to take the next step forward.