Kendall Cooper is one of five returnees from the U18 team that beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime in last year’s gold medal game in Obihiro, Japan. The talented 17-year-old defender, who will suit up for Quinnipiac University next season, enjoyed going to Vancouver's Rogers Arena with her teammates to watch the host nation compete in World Junior action before flying over to Asia.
“It was an awesome experience to go watch,” said Cooper. “I think it was nice for the team to go watch another Canadian team before getting on the ice ourselves. Seeing the pace of the game and the skill set was really something to work toward, I think. I remember always watching the tournament when it started on Boxing Day. It was a nice tradition after Christmas to sit with the family and cheer on Team Canada.”
Maddi Wheeler had Canadian women’s hockey fans screaming for joy in 2019 when the forward from Erinsville, Ontario poked in her own rebound for the golden goal at 1:34 of the sudden-death period in Obihiro, Japan. It broke a string of four straight American U18 Women’s Worlds titles, giving Canada its fifth gold since the tournament kicked off in 2008.
Wheeler, another returnee, will join the powerhouse University of Wisconsin Badgers in 2020/21. Having etched her own name in Canada’s hockey history books, she’ll watch with interest to see what a former peer who could go #1 overall in the 2020 NHL Draft does in his first World Juniors: “I used to play summer hockey with Quinton Byfield when I was younger, and grew up playing against him in winter hockey.”
An excellent skater who admires Hockey Hall of Famer Scott Niedermayer, the 17-year-old blueliner attended multiple development camps in the United States. With the 2018 U.S. U18 women’s select team, she played against Canada in the U18 series in Calgary last August. However, since USA Hockey did not select her for the U18 Women’s Worlds, the Cornell commit remained eligible to represent her native country when Hockey Canada came calling this season.
Twice named Best Defender at the Esso Cup, Canada’s U18 national championship, Messier has her own link to this year’s World Junior squad: “I grew up playing hockey in Canmore, Alberta with Jacob Bernard-Docker and his two siblings. They are family friends. We used to spend Christmas at their house and would watch the World Juniors.”
Of course, these girls are hard-working talents in their own right, and while inspiration from the World Juniors is a great thing, it’s certainly not indispensable.
Brianna Legros, a U18 Women’s Worlds rookie who’s destined for the University of New Hampshire next year, said she didn’t grow up watching the World Juniors. Her household’s hockey-watching energy went into the Montreal Canadiens. According to Legros, she is the only member of her family who has “ever taken hockey really seriously.”
Legros derives encouragement from fellow members of this U18 Women’s Worlds squad. She grew up with Teagan Grant in New Liskeard, Ontario. She currently billets with Lindsay Bochna, and the two are also teammates with the Etobicoke Dolphins of Ontario’s Provincial Women’s Hockey League. Additionally, Legros has enjoyed hitting the ice with sniper Victoria Bach, a 2018 finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award as the top player in U.S. women’s college hockey with Boston University.
Every member of Team Canada knows how tough it’ll be to repeat in Slovakia against the archrival Americans, who boast three-time U18 Women’s Worlds stars like Abbey Murphy and Makenna Webster. No non-North American nation has ever won gold at this tournament.
Big challenges lie ahead, and realistically, neither the U18 women nor the World Junior boys, who are seeking their first gold since Buffalo 2018, will have much time to keep track of one another.
Still, if Canadian head coach Howie Draper can get his girls back on top of the podium, it could be a nice psychological boost for the U20 team in Ostrava. The gold medal game in Bratislava takes place on 2 January, the same day as the World Junior quarter-finals. Double gold over the holidays would be pure magic for the motherland of hockey. As it would for any other of the eight countries competing in both of the tournaments soon.