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Joint camp turns rivals into allies as Canada, USA tune up for World Championship

The cancellation of the Four Nations Cup set the stage for a week-long training camp between the two international superpowers in women's hockey.

There is no rivalry in women’s hockey as fervent as the one between Canada and the United States. The federations have competed for gold in five Olympics,18 World Championships and another 21 times in the Four Nations Cup. But when push comes to shove, enemies can sometimes become the best of friends.

When it was announced this past September that the 2019 Four Nations Cup had been cancelled, the result of a strike by the Swedish women’s national team that was only recently resolved, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey had less than two months to find an alternative for their national team players. Canadian GM Gina Kingsbury knew where to turn.

“My first instinct was to call (USA Hockey Director of Women’s National Team Programs) Katie Million and see if she had heard the news and what they were planning on doing in lieu of (Four Nations),” Kingsbury said. 

The two brainstormed and what came of the discussion was the idea of a week-long joint training camp that would feature a pair of friendly contests between the two national squads. But with the what figured out, it became a matter of the where. A call to the NHL offered a solution, and so the dates were set. In early November, the Penguins’ practice facility, UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, in Cranberry Township, Penn., would play host.

“We both want our teams to be treated like professionals,” Million said. “That was really an important piece for us to make sure that the facility and all the things around the ice time were also up to standard. Coming here to the Penguins facility, they have that and it's here every day.”

As for the event itself, it offered the chance not only for the veterans to get valuable game time together, but also provided both coaches the chance to inject some youth and get a look at the next wave of talent. The Canadian training camp roster featured five NCAA standouts, while the American roster featured a trio. “It was a great opportunity to get the majority of your senior players together,” Canadian coach Troy Ryan said, “but also to pull from the college ranks, meet some of the top end development players and see how they shape up against this group.”

In some ways, the college players actually had a competitive advantage. Prior to the cancellation of Four Nations, Kingsbury and Million were navigating the aftershock of the CWHL’s folding and players boycotting the United States-based NWHL. Had it not been for the joint training camp and associated exhibition games, national team players, some of whom have played only a handful of games as part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, would have gone nearly seven months without high-level competition.

“It's definitely challenging for us,” said Kingsbury of the state of women’s professional hockey in North America. “We want our athletes to be competing on a daily basis at the highest level so that they can be as prepared as possible for the World Championship at the end of the year. So for us, not having them play (professionally) is…it’s scary in a sense. It's not part of the plan and not the ideal plan for sure.” 

Said Million: “We support whatever our players want to do, and we don't tell them what to do. We certainly want to be supportive of them when they're not with us. It is a concern for us. They're carrying a lot of weight on their shoulders right now…it's definitely an intense and pressure situation for them. But I think they're handling it pretty well.” 

Emily Clark, who tallied a hat trick in the second of the two-game set, said the Canadian women who are with the PWHPA have been fortunate for the support they’ve received. In September, Hockey Canada hosted a training camp and have announced seven additional mini-camps leading up to the 2020 World Championship in April, which will be held Halifax and Truro, N.S. “I think that’s huge for us,” Clark said. “It’s huge for our conditioning and getting on the same page and coming together as a team.”

USA Hockey, on the other hand, hasn’t been together since the August’s Women’s Festival in Lake Placid, N.Y., but the defending Olympic and world champions are set to take part in two more camps and a five-game series against Canada before defending the crown. American captain Kendall Coyne Schofield refused to use the lack of ice since August as a way to absolve the national team for being swept in the two-game set by the Canadians, however. 

“There’s a lot of us postgrads in the locker room and we’ve been doing this a long time now,” she said. “So there’s really no excuse, whether you want to attribute it to lack of games, lack of practices together, it was simply a lack of heart. We need to play better when we put that crest on the from of our jersey and our effort wasn’t there.” 

But it won’t be long before Coyne Schofield and Co. have the opportunity to exact some level of revenge. The international rivals meet again Dec. 14 in Hartford, Conn., for the beginning of the 2019-20 Rivalry Series. Game 2 of the series will be played Dec. 17 in Moncton, N.B., and the final three games will take place in the first week of February.

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