Then and now
by Erin Brown|13 JAN 2023
Canada's Tara Watchorn (left) and the United States' Brianna Decker (right) played in the first IIHF U18 Women's World Championship in 2008.
photo: Chris Tanouye / IIHF
This year marks the 15th anniversary of the IIHF U18 Women's World Championship.

Among players who are currently active in women's hockey at the international level, 280 who skated in this event have gone on to play for their national team at the Olympics, Women's World Championship or both.

Canada's Tara Watchorn and the United States' Brianna Decker were among the first to participate in 2008, and have experienced such success.

Watchorn earned a silver medal in the inaugural event and went on to win gold at the 2014 Winter Games as well as three silvers at the Women's World Championship between 2011 and 2016. Decker, meanwhile, captured gold in 2008 and has been active at the international level in every year since except 2010 and 2020. She has earned nine gold medals and four silvers across the spectrum of women's events.

Today, both are paying forward their knowledge and experience to the next generation with their respective teams as assistant coaches. sat down with them to discuss their memories of the inaugural event, the U.S.-Canada rivalry, how the tournament has evolved and where the future of women's hockey is headed.

What were your goals before the IIHF U18 Women's World Championship existed?

Tara Watchorn: I was a normal, small-town Canadian girl who grew up playing hockey because of my brother. I was born in 1990, the year that really was the kickstart of the growth of women's hockey. I played with the boys, but in 2002 I was able to watch the gold-medal game on TV. I was 12. I was at that age where I feel like you can truly understand it. Ever since then I realized there was a path on the women's side and it was always my goal to to make an Olympic team. Every decision I made since then was made with that in the back of my mind.

Brianna Decker: I was just trying to play Division I (NCAA) hockey. I was playing at Shattuck St. Mary's to get ahead with great coaching there, just being able to work as hard as I could to one day play college somewhere. That was kind of my initial goal and, obviously, to make the national team one day.

When you heard there was going to be tournament for players under 18, what was your reaction?

Watchorn: I was at a lucky age — I was 17 when we found out it was going to happen. I remember thinking it was the first step into the program. The national program was under-22 at the time and seemed so far away. It seemed like it was such a big jump in order to see what the experience was like. When they announced that first U18 team, It was just so exciting. I still feel so grateful it happened at that point in my career. Once I got that first experience, the flame was lit. All I wanted to do is get back.

Decker: When the under-18 program popped up, it was a goal of mine to make that team for the two years that I was eligible and hopefully make their (senior) team in future years.

Do you remember this selection process and how you learned you made the team?

Decker: When you're that young and able to represent your country and USA Hockey, it's an opportunity of a lifetime. I was obviously shocked. I was probably shocked at a lot of players that I would be surrounded by. I played with Amanda Kessel at Shattuck. To make a team together was a unique situation for us and it was fun to be able to play that tourney at that level with her and continue onto the national program, too.

Watchorn: It was interesting. They started with a U19 camp because they didn't know what the age cutoff was going to be. So it was a little bit of a unique summer. We had the camp and then they found out what the age cutoff was going to be. The first step was going to that summer USA series in Ottawa. It was really cool because it was a first for everyone — everything from putting the jersey on for the first time together, going through all of those moments. It was really special.

You've both gone on to experience big moments at the senior level, but what was the feeling like when you first put on your nation's jersey?

Decker: There's a lot of nerves. When I put the jersey on, it was an honor. It's kind of surreal moment. When you're at that age, you've got to go with the flow, accept the nerves and try to play your best for your country.

Watchorn: It really encompasses a lot, when you think of all the decisions you made, all the hard work, all the support from your friends and family and community. Then, to get to do it with the rest of your teammates, who also did it in a completely different way, I think that is what was so special, to be in a room where the other young women devoted themselves to something just as much as you did and to look around. We all stood in a circle in silence, kind of put it on together and and took that moment in. It's one that doesn't have a lot of words, but it feels great.
Tara Watchorn had 10 points (four goals, six assists) and won silver with Team Canada in 2008.
photo: Images on Ice
Tara, how special was it for you to play on home ice in Calgary?

Watchorn: Really cool. It's the home base of Hockey Canada and a lot of the Olympic sports in Canada. They had a setup with a Hockey Canada locker room. To go there and think of the women who came before you, like Hayley Wickenheiser, who used the same facilities, you felt like you're a part of the family now, like you were walking in their shoes in those hallways. I think that was really the one of the coolest parts about it — not just that it was in Canada, but it was in Calgary. Then, the passion around hockey, especially out west, was so cool. It was the first time I had ever been out west. My family came out and it was the first time they had ever been out west, too.

How much do you remember from the tournament?

Decker: I remember winning. We had to fight pretty hard to a victory playing in Canada for the first time. The challenges were a little bit more heightened, but it was fun. Challenging moments, nerves, a lot of emotions. To be able to handle that as teenagers is tough. That's what I've been trying to help these kids with, understanding that it's okay to feel those things, to build and go through them. I just remember winning. You don't remember who scored the goals, and at the end of the day, that's the truth of it. Being 10-15 years out of that spot, time flies and you forget about (scoring goals), but you don't forget winning those championships.

Watchorn: I think everything from the music we would listen to in warm-ups and cool downs. I remember every single staff member from the coaches all the way to our strength coaches and our athletic trainers. I just remember all the relationships and how special that group was. But very few memories are from on the ice, to be honest. You remember all the good times and all the excitement of just being a part of that experience.

Tara, you mentioned music. What was the playlist like in 2008?

Watchorn: It was all older stuff to be honest, like John Denver's "Country Roads." That was our go-to song as a team and we would blast it in the locker room. Other than that, my memory is not the best but it's funny what the little things are that stick out are though.

Marie-Philip Poulin led the tournament in scoring with 14 points. Sometimes youth success does not always translate as players get older, but did you sense she was destined for stardom?

Watchorn: No doubt in my mind. She was so young, too. I think she was an under-ager in the tournament and coming from Quebec she didn't speak a lot of English at the time. The way she carried herself, too, on top of that performance at such a young age, and her commitment on the ice and off the ice, I think you had no doubt in your mind that she was going somewhere.

Decker: Oh, yeah. I mean, she's one of the players in the world, if not the best player in the world at that age and still is today. The one thing I always admire about her, is that she plays just as well defensively as she does offensively. She did that from a young age and has continued to do that throughout her years with the national team.

How much emotion did you feel in the United States-Canada games? Had the spirit of the rivalry been picked up by just following it or was it only when you hit the ice that you could truly understand?

Watchorn: For sure it is ingrained, no doubt. At that point in women's hockey, our countries were a little bit further ahead. So you really felt a level of play that you had never experienced before. So not just was the rivalry ingrained, but you felt the excitement of playing at that level. We didn't necessarily have the outcome we wanted down the stretch, even though we did well in the rivalry series, the three game series in the summer and the preliminary games. I think that's a moment I'll remember. It really drove me to want to come back again, too. I think the very first (United States-Canada) game you're excited to see where you're at. The natural competitiveness just escalated. Once you start to play them multiple times is when you start to get to a point where it's like, "all right, we really want to beat them." You build up those battles and that history. I think the first game you ever play, you're just really excited for the competitiveness and want to leave your mark, want to have an impact and help your team win.

Decker: I think when you're younger, you know that it exists, and you hear about it. A lot of older players talk about it. You go to camps and people talk about it. But it really doesn't hit you until you get in that moment. Then you get in those gold-medal games, when there's something that's truly on the line and everything is heightened. It's one of the best rivalries and it's always the best to play in. I think coaching in it you have the same emotion and the same passion behind it all. It's just obviously a little bit different because you have a little less control.

It also seems like as much as there is a rivalry, there's a sisterhood, too. Do you think that's true?

Watchorn: One hundred percent. For a lot of Canadians who go off to play in the NCAA, your paths end up crossing with the Americans. For me, beyond the Olympics in Sochi, I ended up moving back to Boston and playing in the CWHL with a lot of the girls I just played against for a very long time and in the gold-medal game in Sochi — Brianna being one of those people. I think that just solidified it for me, seeing how similar we are and the sacrifices we make and the drive we have for our sport and our game. There's an instant respect. It doesn't matter how competitive you are, how big the rivalry is. There are so few women in this world who really dedicate themselves to something the way we do and that respect won't go anywhere.
United States' Brianna Decker scored seven points (three goals, four assists) and won gold in 2008.
photo: Images on Ice
How did the tournament prepare you to play at the next level?

Decker: I just look at the players who played on our U18 national team and have come up to the national team programs, the senior teams and then in college, it does a lot for you. It gives you experience at a young age that does help the transition into pressure situations in college and on the national team. Things are different and the stage is different at all those levels. It's a lot higher, but it's still prepares you for those moments and that you are going to feel those emotions during those times.

How is today's event similar to the first one? How is it different?

Watchorn: So different. I think the fact there is coverage now, that you can watch TSN covering a world championship in Europe is very different. The exposure, social media and all those things really give these young athletes the opportunity to grow and be seen. You think of families that aren't able to make the trips who can watch and communities that helped raise these athletes up and the young girls who are coming behind them. I think it's so cool, the exposure this tournament gets now. It's also really good preparation for a lot of these young girls who are going to go on to the next level to feel that big stage, to feel the pressure. It's just such a great first step for them in their careers and for each country's development of their young athletes.

Decker: I think the biggest difference is the talent pool and how deep all the teams are throughout the world at this level. When I first started out, in my first experience, it was maybe three or four (strong) teams and now we have a lot of teams who can compete with each other. I think what is great to see is how much the game is growing, not only in North America, but around the world.

What drew you to coaching? What is it that you love about this generation?

Watchorn: I've always wanted to coach. It's been something even as I was an athlete I wanted to do. I've always loved that big picture mindset of how you grow a culture from beginning to end. It's so dynamic when you're talking about different groups of people. I was always a nerd for the game and so happy and fortunate now that I've been able to make it a career once I retired in 2017. I was able to return to my alma mater (Boston University) as an assistant coach and then it wasn't long after that I was able to get my feet wet back on the Hockey Canada side of things. This is my third world championships with the U18 program as an assistant. I get the same feeling coming back to this program as a coach. The environment here, the culture, the passion for being around the group on the staff side of things is as strong as the players. I will come back every time I get a chance to.

Decker: I had an opportunity to coach in Obihiro (Japan) for the under-18 team (in 2019) and that was my first experience. I really enjoyed it. I have worked a lot camps for this age group leading up to that first experience at the under-18 level and I enjoyed it. I think the best thing about these kids is they want to learn, they want to be better, and they are striving to be on an Olympic team one day and hopefully have a chance to win an Olympic medal. So to be part of that, to help these kids through that process is what is really special.

Do you think we might see an under-20 tournament at some point?

Decker: I hope so. We have our U22 series against Canada every year. I think that could maybe be the start of something bigger. It would be awesome. I think it's tough for women's hockey right now, having a U18 team and some kids getting lost in the mix, between not making the national team or being successful at U18s. It would be awesome to have that mid-range team to be able to compete for a world championship. That would be awesome.

If we look ahead 10-15 years, where do you think the game is headed?

Watchorn: We're on the cusp — this is more of a big picture mindset — but if you look at a lot of professional sports, whether it's football or the NHL back in the day, you had your two competing leagues. You had that bump in the road where it almost got worse before it got better. I'm hoping because now the growth of the game, not just in North America, but in Sweden and Finland now, it's starting to grow in general. I'm hoping the competitiveness for one league is just going to push us forward. The hopefulness in me is it will happen sooner rather than later. I think in the next five to 10 years we'll get something.

The biggest thing relative to this age groups is I find these young athletes have such a pressure to find success at an early age. That's the really hard part right now. They see NCAA, college hockey and say "if I'm not on an Olympic team by then, what am I going to do?" That's tough. They're thinking about that at this age group like, "I need to make a U18 team or I'm not going to have a career" and it shouldn't be like that. My hope is growth at every level is going to help. You can become an Olympian or you can make your national program for the first time at the age of 20 or 24. I think once that opportunity happens, it's only going to grow our game.

Decker: It's only going to get stronger. From a national standpoint, it's going to have more teams that are going to be able to compete with the top teams that are the so called the top teams right now. At every tournament, the teams that are maybe thought of at the eight, nine, 10 seed are going to get better and it's going to close the gap a little more.