Oh, what a year can do.
As Canada’s women’s field hockey team prepares to open a four-game series with Japan Thursday in Osaka (5:00pm local/1:00am PT/4:00am ET), the team is reinvigorated.
After a grueling 2015, which saw the Canadian women compete in many high stakes tournaments, and culminated with a bronze medal winning performance on home soil at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, 2016 has a different feel.
A welcome difference this year has been the women being able to spend lengthier periods of time training at the home base in Vancouver in between competitions.
“It’s actually been pretty nice,” says veteran forward and team captain Kate Gillis. “As fun as competing and travelling is, it’s been good to kind of get back to basics and train together as a team.”
While 2015 was a very successful year – the bronze medal win was the first Pan American Games medal for Canada’s women since 1999 and propelled the Women’s National Team inside the top twenty of the International Hockey Federation World Rankings – by no means are the Canadian women resting on their laurels.
After chasing Olympic qualification last year, the Women’s National Team now has its sights set on the 2018 World Cup, for which the qualification process begins next March when Canada hosts World League Round 2 in Vancouver.
And, with the end goal further down the line, the present is about focusing on the little things that lead to success.
Canada began this year with a test series against the United States in San Diego. It was a way to get ready for the prestigious Hawke’s Bay Cup, an eight-team tournament in New Zealand in April, which featured a handful of 2016 Olympic bound-teams.
The invite was an honour for the Canadians. But Canada’s women were there for more and proved they belonged, beating eighth ranked Korea in a historic upset.
It was evidence that despite a contrast in nature from last year, the women are as focused as ever.
“I think the period between San Diego and New Zealand really showed that we were able to progress and really realize what we need to do,” Gillis says of the team’s preparation.
“Throughout these past weeks we’ve been trying to mimic that. Playing here against each other and working on skills; something that we didn’t get to do last year because we were always competing.”
What they also didn’t have a lot of last year was change in the touring roster.
The team was pretty well set throughout 2015, with little time for exploration. But this year has allowed for more internal competition and an infusion of youth.
“I’m just really excited to have this opportunity and finally play with the National Team,” says Shannon Pereira, a native of Toronto, Ontario who will be making her senior international debut this week against Japan.
Pereira is part of a select group of Junior athletes who have been training with the Senior Team since the beginning of the year.
“It’s been pretty intense and really fast paced. Everybody expects a lot. But it was really nice having everyone welcome me to the squad.”
Not only does the inclusion of the Junior athletes in the larger picture expose more athletes to a higher level of hockey, it serves as a testament to the growth of the Women’s Program on the whole.
It is a case of success breeding success.
And that makes for a competitive – but positive – environment according to Gillis.
“It puts pressure on the senior players,” Gillis says. “We’ve been really lucky. Steph (Andrews, Women’s Junior Head Coach) has done a really great job with the juniors.”
It’s just the latest feather in the cap for the Canadian women, as they continue on their rise to the top hockey’s upper echelon.