It’s been 14 months since the Canadian Women’s National Team last played an international match. For many athletes, this week’s carding camp will be the first time back on home soil together in a competitive training environment, and the team, without a doubt, hopes to make the most of it.
After the heartbreaking Olympic qualifier loss in Ireland in the fall of 2019, the team rebooted and prepared for a big 2020, looking forward to World Cup qualification. Then, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic swept over the globe, putting a halt to all competitions. The Canadian Wolf Pack, along with the rest of the world, went into a hiatus.
The team restarted limited training sessions with no competitions on the horizon last summer and has been in a holding pattern ever since. The focus has been on skill development and maintenance. But now, with the light at the end of the tunnel in sight and a new international schedule down on paper, the team is looking at the next few months as a key development opportunity and a chance to get back in the saddle and build towards a goal.
The National Team will embark on a seven-day carding and identification camp this week featuring training sessions every day and a scattered set of intra-squad games. Up until this point, the team has been training in their regional centres with a larger contingent in Vancouver. For the newly-hired head coach, Andrew Wilson, who has been with the team since the new year, this is the first real opportunity to have everyone together on the same pitch.
“It’s been great to actually work with the players on the field,” Wilson said. “It’s been nice to evaluate in-person and provide a structure for our trainings so far. I’m looking forward to having a full-player group. It opens up the opportunity to play 11-aside big pitch games. There will be some nerves at the start … but I want to focus on working hard and getting the team to where we need it to be.”
The next scheduled competition is the Pan American Cup in January 2022. Considering that the last time the team was on the pitch as Team Canada was November 2019, that’s a two-year break between major international competitions. Knowing that some competition opportunities will become available as COVID restrictions loosen, Wilson said the team’s intentions are clear.
“Ultimately, our objective is to improve every day and prepare for every competition in the best way possible,” he said. “We have to create steppingstones for ourselves along the way, so we can be prepared once competition is allowed.”
Carding camps like this week’s, are perfect examples of these manufactured stepping stones. For Shanlee Johnston, veteran defender who has been training in the Vancouver environment, this week will be a refreshing change and will be looking forward to playing with a bigger group in a higher-stakes situation.
“A camp setting always adds a level of competition and pressure,” Johnston said. “Everyone wants to get out there and prove something.”
Over the past three years, the Wolf Pack has jumped from 21st to 14th in the world rankings, earned a silver medal at the Pan Am Games and came a goal shy of a trip to the Olympics. Despite a few retirements and a few people taking a step back from the game, Johnston said the next step is for the team to build off the groundwork that they have laid.
“World Cup qualification is the biggest focus for us now. We have a really strong foundation and it’s about strengthening that and introducing new players to that standard,” she said. “This camp feels like a turning point for us. After this, we’ll have a new-named squad. We’ll have set team standards and now we’ll be training as a team with a defined purpose.”
This week’s camp marks a pivot from small-sided maintenance to purpose-driven training towards major milestones. Alison Lee is a Mississauga-based national team defender with 61 caps to her name. She recently arrived in Vancouver and completed her negative COVID test and quarantine. The COVID restrictions in Ontario have been stricter than those in B.C. meaning that Lee hasn’t really been able to outside her house and immediate household bubble since the fall. For her, the ability to be here with the team is a huge step.
“Honestly, just seeing people outside my household has been really nice,” Lee said. “Being back with the group has been so refreshing.”
Twenty-five players will be at the camp. Most are returning WNT members, some are NextGen athletes taking that step up and some are identified athletes looking to crack the squad. Lee echoes Johnston’s sentiment about having a larger group and a fresh start this week at camp.
“We’ve had the same solid core for the last couple years, so having fresh faces, the fresh talent [at camp] will be really nice,’ she said. “On top of that, every time you have a new coach, there are different challenges. But Andrew’s been great at integrating with the group. Patrick [Tshutshani] has helped make that transition easier as well.”
Lee, who played for two months in the fall in Holland, is one of the few women who got some competition under her belt before another lockdown. Since she’s been back, she has been in Mississauga and hasn’t been training with the Vancouver contingent. She hints that will be looking to make an impact as the team builds for these next major steps.
“Being able to play a full-field game will be really nice. I know everyone is really looking forward to it,” Lee said. “But then the next step is to get competitive games against other teams. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but there’s just no substitute for it.”
The Women’s National Team Carding Camp will run from March 15-22 and will take place at Tamanawis Park in Surrey, BC and the UBC Field Hockey pitch in Vancouver. The team will use camp as an opportunity to name the squad for the coming year and identify NextGen athletes. Stay tuned throughout the week for photos, stories and social media coverage.