Regulation time ended in electrifying fashion, as Riley Heidt put Team Canada Red ahead with just 29 seconds left, only to have tournament scoring leader Zach Benson tie it up with a zinger off the post at 19:59.
Under head coach Troy Ryan, the reigning IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medalists improved game by game in this unprecedented showdown against Canada’s top U17 male prospects (66 players from 44 Canadian Hockey League teams divided into three squads). Despite losing thrice in regulation and once in overtime, the women are following a process during pre-Olympic centralization designed to set them up for success.
Emphasizing the importance of getting out of your comfort zone, Ryan noted: “It’s not something where we can draw on past experience.”
The 10-game tournament (26 November to 1 December) also provided valuable development time – as a pandemic-driven alternative to the traditional World Junior A Challenge – for potential top-10 2023 NHL draft picks like Benson, Ritchie, and Team Red’s Brayden Yager.
Beyond the intrigue of the sexes competing against each other, this was an entertaining, high-scoring event, as tournaments involving teens often are. Winning teams scored six or more goals on six occasions. The players loved the competition and atmosphere.
“You’re super-proud to be here and super-proud to be part of it,” said Team Canada White head coach Rob Wilson. “You just want to make sure you give positive vibes to these young guys and make sure they feel a lot of positivity about what they’re doing.”
Similarly, these experiences at the Arena at TD Place could prove instrumental for the squad captained by Marie-Philip Poulin. The Canadian women are pushing toward the dream of regaining their Olympic title in 2022. They could take away lots of positives even though they lost 6-1 to Team Canada White in the Capital City Challenge third-place game. The women, who fell 3-2 in a climactic shootout to the U.S. in the 2018 Olympic final, debut in Beijing against Switzerland on 3 February.
“[The Canadian women] are a super-tight team and they’re super-relentless,” said Benson, who topped the scoring race with seven goals and 12 points. “They don’t take a shift off. Best of luck to them in the Olympics. Knowing we’re going to be watching that team compete versus other countries for Canada in a couple months, that’s going to be a pretty cool experience for sure.”
In the semi-finals against Team Canada Black, the women rallied from a 3-0 deficit with three unanswered second-period goals in 3:37. Despite being outshot 50-20 while riding another heroic Ann-Renee Desbiens goaltending performance (106 saves on 120 total shots in two games for a 92.5 save percentage), they nearly pulled off an upset.
“It took us a little bit to realize how we were going to play and be most effective against [the U17 players],” said forward Sarah Fillier, a breakout player at the Women’s Worlds in Calgary in August. “They’re big and strong, and we realized we were not going to be able to push them off the puck, so we’d have to attack their sticks.”
Worth noting was the respect between the four teams. Every game was played hard but with good discipline and a skills-first mentality. Nobody wants to get hurt when IIHF glory or a Memorial Cup run could lie ahead in 2022.
For the women, the lessons learned from countering the U17 players’ advantage in size, speed, and strength by relying on structure and smarts could pay dividends in Beijing. Keys include making quick, short passes while playing as a five-woman unit and going hard to the net to create opportunities. If Canada dethrones the U.S. on 17 February, it’ll likely stem from this kind of approach.
“Our leadership group in general is so good about stepping up in moments where we need them to step up,” added Emma Maltais, who won her first gold in Calgary and scored Canada’s lone goal in the Capital City Challenge third-place game. “I think someone who says a lot in the locker room is Blayre Turnbull. She's someone that catches everybody’s attention when she talks and brings everybody together. She does a really good job of getting us all on the same page in between periods.”
This experience was also about facing adversity and overcoming slow starts. The latter was an ability the women showed in August, from the opening 5-3 win over Finland to the 3-2 gold medal victory over the Americans on Poulin’s sudden-death marker. But falling behind was an Achilles heel in Ottawa, as they trailed after every first period.
Meanwhile, for Ottawa, hosting the Capital City Challenge was a nice landmark in what’s been a challenging year.
The Ottawa 67’s are not on pace to repeat their success of 2020 when they topped the OHL regular-season standings before the pandemic kiboshed the playoffs.
And let’s face it: you can’t always host a pumped-up World Juniors like 2009, where Jordan Eberle and John Tavares thrillingly led Canada past Russia in the semi-final (6-5) and Sweden (5-1) in the gold medal game. You can’t always host a big-time Women’s Worlds like 2013, where an all-time single-game record crowd of 18,013 watched Canada hammer Finland 8-0.
Yet in the big picture – like the stunning views of Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier from the tournament host Westin Ottawa Hotel – the Capital City Challenge surely created ripple effects.
The Capital City Challenge was about laying the foundation for great holiday vibes a year from now. If the Canadian women build off Ottawa’s lessons and come home from China with gold medals around their necks, they’ll enjoy Christmas 2022 a whole lot more. And some of the young men who elevated their games at the Capital City Challenge could parlay that into coveted roster spots at the 2023 World Juniors in Novosibirsk and Omsk, Russia.
They say, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Even though the Capital City Challenge might not have occurred in a year without pandemic travel restrictions, it feels like it would be a format worth revisiting again in future seasons.