COVID-19 messed up life as we know it.
That's kind of an understatement at this point, but our reality has been much, much different from what it used to be.
And that's especially true for Canada's national women's hockey team. While many other forms of hockey, including the men's national team, were able to participate with restrictions, women's hockey, as a whole, was at a near-standstill.
The women's World Hockey Championship was originally supposed to take place in April, but an increase in COVID-19 cases in Nova Scotia forced a late cancellation, just as Canada was getting settled in for the challenge. The tournament eventually took place in August, with Canada winning gold for the first time since 2012.
And since August, Canada's national team has been busy, and it hasn't been easy.
Days after finishing the World Championship in Calgary, Canada began preparing for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, an event that has faced questions of Canada as a country potentially boycotting in an official capacity. Mix in having to travel during a pandemic, with many ongoing concerns for the virus in both Canada and China, and it's been a bit of a mess.
But Canada has soldiered through with its centralization program, keeping an extended roster together to prepare for Beijing in an attempt to win gold after losing out to the United States in 2018.
"It's not always going to be smooth sailing," forward Emily Clark said. "I think we're on a pretty tough stretch right. Obviously, we've been traveling a lot, playing a lot of games, but, it's what we love to do. Right now, there's maybe a little bit of fatigue setting in, but we'll find a way to work through it."
Canada is currently partaking in a four-team event against Canada's top U-17 men, split into three randomized teams. Canada White beat the women's squad 7-3 on Friday, with Natalie Spooner and Marie-Philip Poulin combining for the goals. The expectation is that the three junior teams will be better than the women, but it's an important opportunity for the women to play against stronger, faster competition, as they've done already against other junior teams from the BCHL and AJHL.
"Anytime we play the boys in this age group, they're fast, they're physical," Clark said. "They may be a little bit bigger than us, but I think the individual skill is very apparent in this group. There's a lot of great hockey players out there and we're really lucky that we get to be a part of their process, and they're part of ours."
Between the centralization games against Western Canadian junior teams, Finland's women's team, the Rivalry Series against USA, and their game against White on Friday, Canada holds a 5-7-1 record, with all the wins coming against Finland and USA.
So while the numbers might not look pretty, it's par for the course for Canada. They've used men's teams as a training ground in the past, albeit mainly midget and other junior clubs from Western Canada. Playing in this unique event against three other Canadian U-17 all-star teams is a new experience. In the first few games against the Americans, in particular, you could see a determined, energized Canadian team shining through.
"We've done a lot of preparation, played a lot of games, had a lot of practice early on," assistant coach Kori Cheverie said. "We just keep trying to build with every event that we attend. Going over to Finland and playing over there, getting some international games in against them and the United States, and then wrapping it up here against the guys, I think that we can always look to find something to take away from every game that we play and every practice time that we have."
After the tournament in Ottawa, Canada will turn its focus back to the rivalry series with a three-game set in mid-December leading into the Christmas break. The two teams will meet again in Alberta in early January before finishing their current centralization schedule against the AJHL's Calgary Canucks. In all, it's the most intensive game schedule leading up to the Olympics, especially with this being the only real time these women will play this season before the big bang in February. The World Championship will make its return in the spring, marking the first time it has taken place during an Olympic year.
With time counting down to Beijing, it's all systems go from here on out.
"I think that it's important for our group to stay focused on the long-term goals while trying to implement some of the things we're working on in the short term," Cheverie said. "Playing against the United States and Finland is always a great challenge for us and it's a different challenge and a different mindset playing against the guys. There's always a little bit of an adjustment but that's what we want to put the girls through, we want them to be able to navigate through these adverse times."
Adverse times, indeed. But Canada is preparing the best they can, and it might payoff with the hardware they've spent their careers chasing.