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CALGARY — With the attitude of better late than never, Canada's top women's hockey players are relieved to have the chance to finally play meaningful games.
The three-team Secret Cup starting Monday in Calgary featuring 60 players, including the majority of Canada's national team, will be their first real hockey games in well over a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The cancellation of the women's world hockey championship in Nova Scotia in both 2020 and 2021 because of the coronavirus also contributed to a women's hockey desert in Canada.
Toronto's Sonnet, Montreal's Bauer and Calgary's Scotiabank will vie in a six-day, round-robin tournament for the right to meet in the May 30 final at the Saddledome.
"It's crazy to think we've gone almost a year and a half without playing games, really," said forward Rebecca Johnson, a two-time Canadian Olympic gold medallist from Sudbury, Ont.
"Women's hockey has been a little bit frustrating right now for sure. This event that's going to happen with the PWHPA here in Calgary, I think we're just really excited to be able to play some games.
"It is obviously a very weird time. The circumstances are a little bit strange and different for us. We're going to make the most of it."
The Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association, which is a movement rising from the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League two years ago, held Dream Gap Tour tournaments and games across North America in 2019-20 before the global pandemic halted travel and sport in March of 2020.
Tighter restrictions across Canada made it difficult for the PWHPA to organize its showcase tournaments north of the U.S. border in 2020-21.
The PWHPA's American chapter has already played a handful of games in 2021.
"We haven't forgotten about the Canadian players," said Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, who is the PWHPA's operations consultant.
"It's been really challenging here in Canada. Many of our players and teams haven't been able to practice since November. It's exciting for us to be able to get the players back on the ice."
Alberta health authorities approved the PWHPA's pandemic plan, which includes Hockey Canada protocols used for this year's world junior men's hockey championship, as well as national women's and para hockey camps in Alberta.
The first four games will be played in the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex on the Tsuut'ina Nation. The final three will be played at the Saddledome in partnership with the NHL's Calgary Flames.
Sportsnet will broadcast the final three games at the Saddledome and will stream all seven.
The PWHPA's goal is a sustainable women's league that provides the competitive supports the men's pros get, and a living wage.
Not only were tournaments and games designed to showcase North America's top talent to the public forced on hiatus by the pandemic, but members couldn't skate in large groups where they lived.
"It's been a whirlwind and women's hockey has taken quite a few hits in the last two years," said defenceman Renata Fast of Burlington, Ont. "It has been really tough, but I still think there's been a ton of momentum in our favour.
"Even though we've been pushed down, we haven't been able to play, I think there's a lot of hope and optimism around what's to come. I think the future is looking really, really bright. We just need to play."
When the 2021 world championship was abruptly cancelled by Nova Scotia's premier in April, Sarah Nurse said she questioned whether she was a real hockey player because she trained hard, but hadn't tested herself in a game in months.
The Hamilton forward sees the Secret Cup as a chance to answer that question.
"We're finally going to be able to get back onto the ice. It's something we've wanted to do for over a year at this point," Nurse said.
"It's really crucial not only for us to have visibility, but for our own personal development as players, after being off the ice for over a year really without games, that takes a toll on your game and your development.
"We've all had to be pretty mentally strong and resilient and be very disciplined with our training over the last year."
The teams will be a mixture of national-team players, who have at least had the benefit of three camps since January, and some teammates who had fewer opportunities to get on the ice this winter.
"Let's hope it's like riding a bike," said national-team forward Natalie Spooner of Toronto. "You just pick it right back up.
"It's been a roller-coaster for sure these past few years. Highs and lows and yesses and nos. Is it going to happen? Is it not going to happen?
"When this past worlds got cancelled again, it was frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, so many different emotions. Then getting the good news that we are going to get to play and play in the Dream Gap Tour I think was huge."
Spooner says the late-spring Secret Cup relaunches her dream of playing in a sustainable, elite women's league some day.
"Maybe right now people are like 'it's not going to happen. It's impossible' but we are on the right track and we have a lot of momentum from this," Spooner said.
"We've got to keep pushing and believe in ourselves and believe what we're putting out there is a product people want to watch."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 21, 2021.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press