Many of the key contributors on the Canadian women's hockey team at the world championships are players who didn't make the 2010 Olympic team, but they have certainly seized their opportunities since then.
Less than a year out from the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Canadian head coach Dan Church is happy to see some of his young players skating into the forefront when veterans like Hayley Wickenheiser have suffered injuries. There is a wave of players in their early 20s who are starting to look like rising stars.
With Tuesday's game on the line versus the rival Americans, it was 23-year-old Canadian forward Jennifer Wakefield who sealed the win when she juked in on the shootout and roofed a stunning backhand past veteran U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter. The goal prompted Wakefield's more veteran teammates to rave about it, touting it for the highlight reels in their post-game television interviews. It's quite a contrast from three years ago, when Wakefield went through Canada's six-month-long Olympic tryout camp but wasn't good enough yet to make the roster.
"I think the 2010 centralization was a huge learning curve in the process of her development," said Church. "Since then, she has gotten so much better every year. She has really taken all the feedback we gave to her and used it, even sought guidance, and that's why you are seeing a different player here."
Wakefield had been starring at the University of New Hampshire at the time, but decided she needed a change of scenery to thrive. She transferred to Boston University for her last two seasons, fell in love with the city, the campus and the team. She helped the Terriers reach the championship game at the 2011 National Collegiate Athletic Association Frozen Four and routinely led her conference in scoring. "Since 2010, I went back to the drawing board and focused on my weaknesses," said the 5-foot-10, 165-pound forward from Pickering, Ont. "I feel I really improved my skating back home after that. I was lacking confidence, but I'm playing with confidence now."
She graduated last spring and was drafted by the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. She has been able to train intensively with other national team players in Toronto, working meticulously with an on-ice skills coach.
"A bunch of us train in Toronto, and I have worked a lot on shootouts," Wakefield said. "I was so happy that the coaching staff had the confidence to put me into the shootout versus the U.S., because there was a lot of pressure since we had such a great comeback in the game and no one wanted to be the player that couldn't score in the shootout."
Canada has been far from perfect in the tournament, but things have looked up when players have cranked up the physical play, including big forwards like Wakefield, and 5-foot-9, 160-pound Brianne Jenner, just 21 and still playing at Cornell University. Then there was 22-year-old Bailey Bram, Canada's 13th forward, who was handed more ice time after Wickenheiser left the first game of the tournament with an upper-body injury. Now with the experience of one or two world championships under their belts, they are starting to stand out.
"They might not be on the top line yet," said defenceman Tessa Bonhomme, who won Olympic gold with Canada in 2010. "But they are definitely showcasing their talent right now."