Long journey sees Shelton, Thompson re-unite on Canadian women's hockey team

·4 min read
Canada's Ella Shelton celebrates her goal during a game against Russia at the women's world championship in 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Ella Shelton celebrates her goal during a game against Russia at the women's world championship in 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Ella Shelton was preparing to learn whether she'd made the Olympic team, and her computer wouldn't open the fateful video call. Naturally, she began to panic.

The 24-year-old eventually connected from her phone, and caught the only thing she needed to hear.

"The first word that came out of [head coach Troy Ryan]'s mouth was congratulations," she told CBC Sports. "And I kind of just broke down into tears there."

Though Shelton is among the youngest players on Team Canada, the moment had been a long time coming. Shelton's mom tells a story of young Ella pointing out the women's team on television during the Games in Salt Lake City, when she first saw high-level hockey as a possibility for herself.

"I just went, 'I'm going to play on that one day!'" Shelton relayed. "And then I walked away."

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Young Ella may have been prescient, but it's her work ethic and willingness to learn that's gotten Shelton to this point.

The 5-foot-8 defender grew up on a farm, and credits that with fostering her team-first mentality. She sees plenty of parallels between hockey and farm work, where even the unglamourous jobs need doing and bring value to the whole.

Shelton takes pride in her physical game; she enjoys winning battles in the corner and shutting down opponents. She's also patient on the puck, and has come to more frequently put her impressive shot to use.

Matt Desrosiers, who coached her at Clarkson University, describes Shelton as a "very modest person," and says getting her to realise just how good she is was a consistent point of emphasis.

Once she gained confidence, she became a reliable all-situations player ― a "Swiss Army knife of defence," as Desrosiers put it.

Teammate Claire Thompson, who spent most of her minor hockey days playing centre, has never hesitated to jump into the rush. She made the permanent switch to defence ahead of her grade 11 year, after her dad saw potential in her skill-set.

John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

Princeton coach Cara Morey had recruited Thompson as a forward, and has a simple answer as to what it took for the 23-year-old to become a world class defender.

"She had to work on defending," Morey said with a laugh. "She had to work on stick placement, one-on-one play, her forward-to-backwards pivot."

From rivals to blue-line pairing

Shelton and Thompson played for rival clubs as teenagers, but wound up as a defensive pairing with the provincial squad. The two even scored their first points for Team Ontario on the same play, given assists on a wacky goal that came courtesy of a strange bounce off the glass. Shelton recalls the duo celebrating the milestone accordingly.

"We were super excited about it," she said. "Just over the moon."

That genuine delight remains evident in Thompson's game, Morey says.

"Claire has the most exceptional way of balancing competitive energy with positive fun," she explained. "When you watch her play, she has so much joy."

Neither Thompson nor Shelton made the national U18 team, and Thompson didn't get another Hockey Canada call-up until four years later. During that span, Morey says, Thompson accepted the possibility that wearing the maple leaf might not be in the cards. Instead of focusing on long-term outcomes, she worked on becoming the best player she could be in the moment.

"She was able to just be confident because it didn't really matter where the chips fell in the end," Morey said.

With Canada, Thompson has thrived as a playmaking defender, trusted with important top-four minutes.

"Claire has a really unique ability to be able to break the puck out up through the middle in all situations," Morey said. "She can read space, and she's not afraid to attack seams."

Four years after their Team Ontario experience, Thompson and Shelton made their senior debuts in a two-game series in late 2019. They didn't get another chance until August's world championship.

Thompson figures the extended break was beneficial, in hindsight.

"It gave me the opportunity to really improve my strength and power in the gym," she said. "We were able to work out every single day without the fear of being a bit too tired for a game."

Following a steady yet swift ascent, both players expect getting to Beijing will help their Olympian status sink in.

"I'm really just excited to be in the village, to meet other athletes, to be a part of Team Canada at the Olympics," Thompson said.

"I think it's all going to be incredible."

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