Countdown to Nova Scotia
by Lucas Aykroyd|05 FEB 2020
Jill Saulnier and Blayre Turnbull hope to help Canada win its first Women's Worlds gold medal since 2012 when Canada hosts the event in Halifax.
photo: Kristen Lipscombe
Tickets to the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship are a hot commodity. And if your name is Blayre Turnbull or Jill Saulnier, that’s even more true.

The two veteran Team Canada forwards are thrilled to have the tournament back in their native Nova Scotia for the first time since 2004. Turnbull said that if she cracks the final Canadian roster, she expects to have close to 30 family members in attendance at Halifax’s Scotiabank Centre, plus friends.

“Hopefully there’s enough tickets set aside for my family,” said the 26-year-old Stellarton native, who set up Victoria Bach’s 3-2 overtime winner in Game Three of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series in Victoria to cut the U.S. series lead to 2-1. “I know Jill’s family will have even more people than mine, probably. So the Saulniers and Turnbulls, if we both make it, I think we’ll take up a whole section.”

2004 marked one of the great peaks in Canadian women’s hockey history. The host nation beat the U.S. 2-0 in the final in Halifax on goals by Hayley Wickenheiser and Delaney Collins and a Kim St-Pierre shutout. It was Canada’s record-setting eighth straight Women’s Worlds gold medal, dating back to the inaugural 1990 tournament in Ottawa. 

Saulnier, then 12, and Turnbull, then 10, were there as members of the elite Raiders spring team. They got inspired by cheering on tournament all-stars like Jayna Hefford and Jennifer Botterill. 

“I remember that was actually one of my first times playing on a team with Jill,” Turnbull said. “So our team went to the games and we got to go to the autograph sessions and meet-and-greets. We both look back and we have a bunch of pictures with the team, some autographs and stuff that we still are able to reminisce about. And it’s a memory that we still share a lot of laughs over.”

Today, both Saulnier and Turnbull are focused on taking part in their fourth Women’s Worlds (Halifax and Truro, 31 March to 10 April). They’re willing to take on whatever role they’re given. This is, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The last time Canadians won gold in their home province was 2007 in Winnipeg, when Botterill, Collins, and goalie Sami Jo Small brought pride to Manitoba.

“I’ve had the opportunity to play for Canada for a while now,” said Saulnier. “I’ve definitely jumped around in different roles. Every one has been a lot of fun for me. Right now, I would consider myself an energy player. I’m growing into that veteran role as well. I’ve been here for a little bit, so that’s been an honour as well. I’m trying to lead by example, but also bring the energy and that compete level.”

Saulnier, a two-time Women’s Worlds silver medallist (2015, 2016), was part of Canada’s 2018 Olympic team as well. She assisted on Canada’s first goal in a 5-0 round-robin win over Russia and scored the fourth goal in a 4-1 win over Finland. The 166-cm, 65-kg forward was limited to one assist in seven games when Canada settled for bronze at the 2019 Women’s Worlds in Espoo, Finland.
Canada’s Jill Saulnier all smile after a goal the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
Turnbull, a former University of Wisconsin captain who won silver in 2016 and 2017, had her best personal run ever in a Canadian uniform at the 2019 Women’s Worlds. She improved from three assists in PyeongChang – including a cross-ice pass to Haley Irwin to set up Canada’s opening tally in the final 3-2 shootout loss to the U.S. – to four goals in Espoo.

However, the 170-cm, 70-kg attacker had to leave Canada’s historic 4-2 semi-final loss to Finland after taking a questionable hit from Ronja Savolainen. The disgruntled Canadians settled for bronze after blanking Russia 7-0.

“We go into every tournament wanting to win gold,” Turnbull said. “I think for us to finish in third place, obviously, it’s tough. It’s a hard pill to swallow. And I think it makes us realize that it’s unacceptable to go in with the expectation of winning gold and come away with the bronze medal. It’s something that we don’t want to happen again, and I don’t think we’ll ever allow it to happen again.”

Now the focus is on what lies ahead. While the 2020 Women’s Worlds will be a game-changer for many girls in Atlantic Canada’s most populated province, the task of growing this sport goes far beyond a single showcase tournament. The IIHF runs events like the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend (October) and the Global Girls’ Game (February). For their part, Saulnier and Turnbull have taken up the torch by operating an annual Nova Scotia summer skills camp.

Turnbull explained: “We started it after the Olympics. It’s an all-girls camp, usually in two or three locations. We’ll do one in Halifax and then one in New Glasgow. Sometimes we head down to Cape Breton and do one there too. This upcoming summer, we have dates set for Halifax and New Glasgow. We’re looking forward to getting out on the ice with a bunch of kids and hopefully having a lot of fun.”

What is the biggest benefit of running a camp like this?

“I think getting to see the joy on the kids’ faces and how much happiness it brings for Jill and I to see that. We might be having a bigger impact than we realize. It’s pretty special for us to be looked to as role models now. And I think it’s great for the kids to be able to have people that they can look up to that are from home. Jill and I didn’t have that when we were growing up. We didn’t have the opportunity to do an all-girls hockey camp. It’s a fun way for us to give back and get to know the kids and meet their parents and make connections.”

The Nova Scotia women’s hockey community is tight-knit. After Hockey Canada parted ways with head coach Perry Pearn in January, assistant coach Troy Ryan, who hails from Spryfield, Nova Scotia, assumed the reins.

Ryan, 48, made his official senior IIHF debut behind the bench at the 2017 Women’s Worlds. In November, he served as the head coach when Canada won both its exhibition games (4-1 and 5-3) during a joint training camp with the Americans in Pittsburgh. That helped to convince GM Gina Kingsbury that Ryan deserved a full-time promotion.

“Troy’s incredible,” Saulnier said. “I’ve had the pleasure of knowing him for years now, obviously being from the East Coast. He’s the kind of coach you always hope you get to play under one day. Things have been incredible the past few years he’s been around. To have him as the head coach, you can already see the motivation and the sparkle in the girls’ eyes, to want to win and be that much better. With his guidance and leadership, it’s been bar none, for sure.”

When Canada failed to face the U.S. in the 2019 Women’s Worlds final, it was the first time that had ever happened in 19 gold medal games. Still, the Rivalry Series emphasizes that the main international rivalry is still between the North American superpowers. The fact the U.S. has won five straight Women’s Worlds and is the reigning Olympic champion has only heightened the urgency for Canada to fight back.
A happy Blayre Turnbull after a win at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship.
photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images
According to Turnbull, having the elite Americans and Canadians associate on a regular basis through their shared membership in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) doesn’t mean it’s all buddy-buddy now.

“I think off the ice it’s changed a little bit,” Turnbull admitted. “Obviously, some people have become good friends and acquaintances, just because we’re all fighting for the same thing at this point in our hockey careers. But as soon as we step on to the ice, all the friendship is put aside. It’s still quite a feisty rivalry and it’s something that we both get really amped up for. Neither team wants to lose. It’s still very competitive.”

Saulnier, who won a CWHL championship with Turnbull in 2016 with the Calgary Inferno, admitted that playing PWHPA exhibition games sporadically across North America on the 2019-20 Dream Gap tour has had its challenges.

Still, the Cornell grad, who was a 2014 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, focuses on the big picture of achieving a sustainable future for women’s hockey. Saulnier’s degree was in agriculture and life science, and this is all about planting seeds.

“It’s tough to motivate yourself without a prize at the end for sure,” said Saulnier. “But at the end of the day, the main prize is that next generation having a place to play. If that isn’t good motivation, I don’t know what is! Yes, it’s tough every day to kind of wake up and wait for the next big showcase or whatever event’s going to go on. But it’s the day-by-day, little baby steps that are going to make the difference in the long run.”

A similar philosophy lies behind the shift from eight to 10 teams at the Women’s Worlds, which started last year in Espoo. It was spearheaded by IIHF President René Fasel. Thanks to the IOC Executive Board’s 2018 approval, there will also be 10 teams at the 2022 Beijing Olympics, creating more exposure and popularity for women’s hockey worldwide.

At the upcoming Women’s Worlds, Turnbull and Saulnier are confident that the Group B teams – including Japan, the Czech Republic, Germany, and newcomers Denmark and Hungary – will receive a warm welcome at Truro’s Rath Eastlink Community Centre.

“My hometown of Stellarton is about 40 minutes away from Truro,” Turnbull said. “I think it’s going to be a great atmosphere. People in that area love hockey. There’s a couple of Junior A teams and midget AAA teams out that way that always get a good crowd. I know when I was growing up and we would play in Truro, it was really exciting with the rivalry between Truro and Pictou County. I think the Group B teams should expect a good crowd that’s engaged and excited to watch some good hockey.”

Indeed, it’s going to be a fun time. And Saulnier, a Halifax native, doesn’t take herself too seriously despite her on-ice intensity.

Like Elias Pettersson of the Vancouver Canucks, she can ride a unicycle and juggle simultaneously. When informed about their shared talent, she exclaimed: “I’ve never talked to him. I didn’t know he did that! We’ll have to have a race sometime or challenge each other on how long we can go or something.”

After losing a bet when Canada’s U18 women’s team fell 2-1 in overtime to the Americans in January’s World Championship gold medal game in Bratislava, Saulnier bought U.S. superstar Hilary Knight breakfast. (French toast, in case you’re curious.) So Saulnier is a natural choice to ask about what to eat, see and do between games in the Nova Scotia capital.

“The downtown scene of Halifax is growing. It’s getting exciting! If you like the water, get down there and grab a good bite of seafood. There’s some great lobster down there on the waterfront. I’d say there’s nothing better than that and a game of hockey in a day!”

In other words, get your tickets now, folks. As Nova Scotians say: “Fill yer boots.”