Forty-seven of the top women hockey players in Canada gathered in Liverpool, September 9 to 14, for the BFL National Women's Team Fall Festival. The assembled talent was formidable, including 11 Olympic gold medallists, 22 world bronze medallists, and a former NHL assistant coach.
The event featured five days of practises and four games – two intrasquad and two against Junior A teams - the Valley Wildcats (4-2 loss for Team Canada) and the Pictou County Crushers (4-1 win for Team Canada). They also took time out for autograph sessions and to meet with the fans who packed into Queens Place Emera Centre.
Fans were able to see the skill and the work necessary to reach the highest level of hockey. The players were split into red and white squads for practises and games.
Several young fans attended the games and practises. At Thursday night's game against the Valley Wildcats, many of them were lucky to get autographs from some of the players during the first intermission.
"I'm having a real good time," said Anna Shand who stood alongside three of her friends. Billie Kent said that her favourite player is Natalie Spooner, adding: "They are good hockey players and they are really pretty. I want to be like them."
The festival gave some of the youths who play minor hockey a chance to participate in the event as well. Before each game, two skaters acted as Nova Scotia and Canadian flag bearers. As well, two others were able to suit up in the Team Canada dressing room, participate in the warm-up stretches, and do some warm-up drills and skate-arounds on the ice with the team before each game.
In addition, some 600 students were able to attend Thursday and Friday as part of the school activities.
"It was a very encouraging experience for youth. Quite a way to start their school year," said Steve Burns, manager of events, promotions and sponsorship for Queens Place Emera Centre.
Halifax's Jillian Saulnier, a 10-year veteran of the team, said, "it's been amazing. I may be biased, but it's good Nova Scotia hosting at it's been finest. We've been more than pleased."
The forward, 27, noted that even as a veteran of the game she can always learn more from events such as this one.
"Learning from the coaches, the staff, your team-mates, this is an incredible environment to do that and I feel honoured to be able to do that this year," said Saulnier.
A big reason that Hockey Canada teams hold camps outside of major venues is to bring the game to the fans and to inspire kids to chase their dreams.
"I think it's huge for the little kids in the stands to see us and the work that we put in. Hopefully it will inspire them to believe that they can do this too," she said.
Head Coach Perry Pearn, a NHL assistant coach for 20 years and in his second year with the national women's team, said: "The key coming out of this is to set our depth cart going forward," he said. "Nobody is getting eliminated from the team because of what goes on here, but it's more of a matter of seeing where everybody fits in."
A big test for the team came from the Junior A teams that they played September 12 and 13.
Following a 4-2 loss Wednesday to the MHL's Jr. A Valley Wildcats, Pearn said they weren't sure what to expect going into the game.
"We've never played Jr. A teams before, but I think it was a real good indication that this is the level we should be playing at. I think if we would have done the things we do real well tonight, we could have won. But this is the kind of game you want to have in terms of trying to grow your team."
Veteran player, Marie-Philip Poulin from Beauceville, Quebec, called the week intense, but noted the people in Liverpool made things easier.
"We came at a tough time, with the hurricane, but everyone has been amazing," she said. "Even in practises there are people in the stands. Coming into communities like Liverpool is something we really value. Seeing the little kids with a spark in their eyes to make them dream of being a part of the team, is something we value a lot. We take pride in it. We are lucky to be able to do what we love the most, at the highest level. It's a way to give back."
Many of the players will be back in the Maritimes to play for their country at the 2020 World Championships that will be co-hosted in Halifax and Truro April 2020.
The team will look for some revenge after finishing third at the event in Espoo, Finland in April 2019. Their last championship win was in 2012.