U18 Women’s Worlds Preview: Canada vs. Slovakia

For the first time in the history of Canada’s U18 women’s national team, six members of the same club team will play together at the IIHF Women’s U18 World Championship

Competing with the best players in the country for a spot on the Canada U18 women’s national team can be a daunting task. But for several members of Team Canada, they had five of their teammates by their side throughout the process.

Avi Adam, Reichen Kirchmair, Sarah MacEachern, Mari Pietersen, Alyssa Regalado and Mckenna Van Gelder all play with the Etobicoke Dolphins in the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) U22 Elite division. Now the three forwards, two defenders and a goaltender have swapped their Dolphins jerseys for the Maple Leaf to represent Canada at the 2022 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship.

“It can be scary being away from home and in a selection camp,” says Pietersen, 17. “Knowing that I have the support of my five teammates who are here with me, [it] kinda feels like home away from home.”

This is the first time in the history of the Canada U18 women’s national team that six players from the same club side are in a squad. There have been five cases of Team Canada with four members from one team since 2008, primarily the Canadian Sports School Hockey League (CSSHL) pursuit of excellence in 2018.

“Having the girls here with me today makes me feel so supported,” says Van Gelder, 18. “We’ve all been through the same thing. We can all talk to each other about it. And it’s just great to have some of your best friends here with you.”

The chemistry among the dolphins is not limited to this season either. Adam, MacEachern, Regalado and Van Gelder will attend Cornell University together in the fall. Kirchmair, Regalado and Van Gelder have been on the Dolphins U22 team since the 2019/20 season. Additionally, Regalado and Van Gelder have been playing together since they were eight years old.

“Whenever I want to talk about hockey … she’s always there for me and is such a great hockey player,” says Regalado, 18, of Van Gelder. “It’s so good to be able to experience these big wins with her and to be able to play with her at this next level.”

Preparation for Team Canada can be linked to her time at Etobicoke. According to head coach Joe Butkevich, the team is focused on educating players about professionalism, strength conditioning and expectations on and off the ice – all intangibles that pay dividends in the national team selection process.

“They have accomplished so much, be it academically or through scholarships or programs at the provincial level and now at the national level. It was great to just kick back as a fan of theirs,” says Butkevich. “We only play a small role in helping them get to where they are, so that has been phenomenal. It was a journey like no other.”

The 2021-22 season for the Dolphins has been a journey in itself. After finishing first in their division, the Dolphins went into a tough championship weekend finishing second at the Durham West Lightning. In the two weeks leading up to the provincial tournament, Etobicoke felt like his job wasn’t done and focused fully on his next goal: winning the OWHA title.

The Dolphins entered the tournament with an “all the throttle, no brakes” mentality. In the end, Etobicoke defeated Durham West 2-1 in the final to win the team’s first-ever provincial championship.

“It’s kind of a picture book ending for us, especially for kids who have been in the program for three or two years,” says Butkevich. “I wanted it for her. They put their heart and soul into our program and they gave it their all.”

“It was surreal. I’m still on cloud nine,” says Van Gelder about winning the provincial title. “At that point, everyone was just playing for each other. Nobody cared who got the points. No one cared who got the Ice Age. We just wanted to say that we are national champions. We wanted that medal around our necks.”

Of the six Dolphins on Team Canada, only Pietersen is returning to Etobicoke next season before moving to Boston University in 2023. She’s gathering the experience at the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship to share with her teammates next season.

“I’m going to be an older girl on the team next year, so [I can] more of a leadership role [to] many of the younger girls,” says Pietersen. “To show them what it was like to be [on] a national team and hopefully someone to look up to.”

From the regular season through the playoffs to representing on the Canada U18 women’s national team, the Etobicoke community has been with these six players every step of the way.

“I think we were all choked when they called home [saying they made the
team], but the first thing from every parent I spoke to was, ‘What about the other girls?’ Everyone is attracted to each other,” says Butkevich.

“Playing at Etobicoke was amazing,” adds Pietersen. “The community is so close. Our team was the closest team I’ve ever been a part of. Always support each other through the players, the staff, the families. It just motivates you so much and makes you feel like you always have someone to go to.”

A trusted community support system is also beneficial if you are competing on an international stage for the first time in your career.

“It can get very stressful during these times because everyone is trying to do their best and perform at their best,” says Regalado. “I know myself personally, I put a lot of pressure on myself. So just having an outlet to talk and laugh with, or just forget what’s going on and just focus on having a good laugh, I just think it’s great.”

As the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship continues in Madison and Middleton, Wisconsin, the six Dolphins look forward to enjoying the experience not only with their Etobicoke teammates, but also with their newly formed Team Canada family.

“I’ve dreamed of it since I was a little kid, since the Sochi Olympics when I saw the winning goal,” says Van Gelder. “Representing your country with 22 other family members [is] an unreal experience.”

“Now it’s all about being a good teammate,” adds Regalado. “I’ve come this far. You know how I can play… how can I support my teammates?

“The good connections on and off the ice will really mean that we can be successful and hopefully win a gold medal in the end.”

There may be six dolphins on the ice in Wisconsin, but there will be one more in the stands. Butkevich will attend the U18 Women’s World Championships in person, cheering on his players while wearing the Maple Leaf.

“I’ve got a Hockey Canada jersey with all their name bars on the back, so I’m pretty pumped. I feel like a second father to them, I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” says Butkevich. “I can’t wait to see her as a fan, not as a coach, but – apart from her family – as her biggest supporter.”

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