From Jennifer Botterill to Sami-Jo Small, Manitoba has a rich history of producing some of this country's finest female hockey players. Now, the next wave of talent is looking to shine bright on a big stage.
Deloraine's Ashton Bell, 21, and Brandon's Kristen Campbell, 23, will make their debuts when the women's world hockey championship begins Friday in Calgary. Canada takes on Finland to kick off the round-robin portion of the 10-nation tournament, which runs through Aug. 31 and will be broadcast on TSN.
"We know that everyone will be supporting us throughout the country," Campbell, one of three goaltenders on the club, told the Free Press on Thursday. "It's going to be a different landscape than normal, but it's still on our home soil and I know that everyone's really excited to bring the game back to Canada."
The worlds haven't been held since the spring of 2019, when Canada fell to host Finland in the semifinal, ultimately settling for a disappointing third-place finish. The powerhouse Americans claimed the title by downing the Finns in a shootout, their fifth straight championship. The 2020 event was set to be held in Nova Scotia but ultimately cancelled due to the pandemic. And this year's tournament, initially set to be held in Halifax last spring, was scrubbed for the same reason, ultimately moved across the country and a few months down the road.
All of which adds another layer of intrigue, with the 2022 Winter Olympics on the horizon. No doubt members of this 25-player roster, which was reduced from an initial pool of 29 hopefuls who arrived in Calgary last month, hope to stake their claim for a future spot.
"There's definitely an added excitement, knowing the Olympics are coming up and we're using this to prep for them," said Bell, one of seven blue-liners for Canada. "Since I was a little girl I've always dreamed of competing at the Olympic level and wearing that jersey."
Bell, who plays for the University of Minnesota-Duluth, has recently converted from forward to defence. Her mentor and occasional blue-line partner is the third Manitoban on the team in Ste. Anne's Jocelyne Larocque, who at 32 is an alternate captain and the most veteran player on the squad. Larocque was on the 2018 national team that lost the gold medal game to the U.S. at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"She's been a role model for me, someone I've looked up to here and awesome for me in terms of answering questions and being welcoming and making me feel at home," said Bell, a multi-sport athlete whose resume includes competing in rodeo events as a teenager in Manitoba. She joked her skills, which include calf and goat roping, might come in handy during some net-front scrums.
"For sure, you better watch out," she said with a laugh. "It's a fun hobby to do, outside of hockey, just to take a break from it and get my mind off it. I don't compete now anymore, but just ride for fun and enjoy it so much."
Bell, the second-youngest player on the team, got some of the butterflies out of the way on Wednesday, when Canada skated to a 4-1 victory over Finland in a pre-tournament contest.
"It's been challenging, but I've loved it so much. The coaches here are awesome about it, just knowing that this is a good opportunity for me to develop and get used to this pace. All the D, too, have been awesome, answering any questions I have and showing me the ropes. Just excited to keep growing as a player," she said.
Campbell, the youngest of the three goaltenders, didn't see the net in this week's tune-up and isn't sure what the immediate future holds in that regard.
"Just talking with our coaches, obviously you want to win a gold medal and they said they're going to play whoever's going to give us the best chance to win," said Campbell. "We have a great goaltending group. I have a great relationship with my goalie partners, and I think all of us want to win gold and push each other to better every day. Just showing up and making an impact each day in whatever way I can, I think that's all our focus right now. As a unit, doing what we can to help each other and help the team."
Campbell played college hockey with the University of Wisconsin, becoming the first woman to win the Frozen Four championship without giving up a single goal in the event. She spent last season in Calgary with the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, which held their Dream Gap tour.
"It's definitely been an interesting year," she said. "Everyone's found ways to elevate their game and keep making progress forward. We were able to find ice quite a bit and honestly train more than a normal hockey season. I feel like we've taken it to our advantage and made the most of this past year."
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But there's nothing that can replicate real-life competition, which Campbell, Bell and their teammates hope will soon include the option of a professional league for Canadian players. Currently, such a loop remains at the discussion stage.
"All of us here on the national team, our goal is to create a sustainable women's hockey league, a professional league, in the near future," she said. "I think we've been making large strides with the PHWPA and we're all excited to kind of continue this momentum and see where it goes. For sure, with the level that women's hockey has gotten to over the years, there needs to be a women's league and place for us to continue to propel the game forward. I really do see that happening here in the near future."
First up will be trying to propel this club to a championship, with the Americans once again expected to put up a formidable fight. Then, the focus will shift to trying to add a gold medal to the trophy case next winter.
"It's been a lifelong goal of mine. Growing up and watching the Olympics every single time it comes around, I just think it would be a dream come true to be part of that team," said Campbell. "Really looking forward to the opportunities that I'll have moving forward with this group, and looking forward to what could happen here in February 2022."
Mike McIntyre Sports columnist
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.