Canada's under-18 women's hockey team chases repeat gold in world championship

The women's world under-18 hockey championship returns to its regular time slot with Canada chasing a second gold medal in less than seven months.

The Canadians open defence of their title Sunday against Finland in Oestersund, Sweden.

"These girls are through the roof and excited for this opportunity," Canadian head coach Courtney Birchard-Kessel told The Canadian Press from Sweden.

"You don't have to fire them up, that's for sure. Sometimes you have to tell them to take a breath."

Seven players return from the squad that held off the United States 3-2 to win June 13, 2022 in Madison, Wis.

The 2022 tournament originally slated for Sweden in January was rescheduled and relocated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, after the 2021 women's under-18 championship was cancelled altogether.

After they were thrashed 7-0 by the United States in the preliminary round in Madison, the Canadians prevailed over the Americans in the championship game.

Defender Ava Murphy of Kitchener, Ont., who had a goal and an assist in the final, led Canada in tournament points with two goals and three assists in six games.

"I'm so grateful to get this opportunity to play in two world championships," Murphy said. "I don't take it for granted at all."

Returning players Murphy, Jocelyn Amos of Ailsa Craig, Ont. — who scored the eventual game-winner in Madison — Alexia Aubin, of Lévis, Que., Jordan Baxter of Coquitlam, B.C., Toronto's Piper Grober, Alex Law of Whitby, Ont., and Emmalee Pais of London, Ont., lead Canada's charge for its first repeat since 2013-14.

"To get to come here with a group of seven returners has been pretty special as well," Murphy said.

"We kind of all went through worlds as underages. To come into this tournament having that experience, and knowing we were in the younger girls' shoes and we can lead them in anything they need help with, is really helpful."

Canada has won six gold medals in the 14-year history of the tournament.

Two-thirds of the Olympic team that claimed gold last year in Beijing were under-18 alumni, including captain Marie Philip-Poulin and Natalie Spooner who played in the inaugural world championship in 2008 in Calgary.

The players born in 2005 and 2006 on the 2023 edition travelled to Europe for the first time in their careers to represent Canada in international hockey.

"It definitely does feel like a whole new experience, flying through a time change and being in an area we're not familiar with," Murphy said.

The coaching staff of the under-18 women brings a combined 183 games of international experience between them.

Birchard-Kessel appeared in three women's world hockey championships for Canada and won gold in 2012.

Married to Blake Kessel, the 33-year-old from Mississauga is the sister-in-law of NHL player Phil and U.S. women's team forward Amanda.

Birchard-Kessel and assistants Stefanie McKeough and 2014 Olympic gold medallist Tara Watchorn were under-22 teammates at the 2011 MLP Cup in Switzerland.

"To be able to stand beside each other and coach, it's incredible," Birchard-Kessel said. "I really think its special having Steph and Tara beside me."

She's making her head-coaching debut in an international tournament, but Birchard-Kessel already navigated the majority of her players in Sweden to a 3-0 summer series win over their under-18 U.S. counterparts last August.

"We were successful against the Americans, but it's a new tournament now right?" she said. "It's been five months. At this stage, there's a ton of development that happens in those months. Other countries have been working hard and focusing on this as well.

"I think we're very skilled. We have a great group of returners, the seven returners who were amazing in Wisconsin and winning a gold medal. I think having that experience under their belt is huge for their leadership here with us."

Canada, the U.S., Finland and Sweden comprise Group A, while Czechia, Japan, Slovakia and Switzerland make up Group B.

After Sunday's opener against the Finns, Canada meets Sweden on Monday and the U.S. on Wednesday in the preliminary round.

Canada fell 4-3 to Finland in Thursday's pre-tournament game.

TSN and RDS will broadcast 13 games from Oestersund Arena, including playoffs capped by the Jan. 15 final.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: The original story said the coaching staff was the first all-female staff in under-18 team history. The coaching staff in 2015 was all women.