MYHockey News

Goal Achieved but Dream Deferred for Four Jr. Barracudas

By Scott Lowe –

Photo Courtesy Burlington Jr. Barracudas

Last week in the United States we were fortunate to celebrate the playing of youth hockey national-championship tournaments, the crowning of national champions and the completion of a full season of play for many programs across the country. It was the craziest season of our lifetimes – one filled with tons of obstacles, uncertainty and chaos – but we made it.

In our exuberance to celebrate the season, we shouldn’t forget that many young players in both the United States and Canada didn’t get to play many – or any – games as a result of the spread of COVID-19. 

Because provincial and local restrictions, the pandemic has had a far more negative impact on hockey north of the border. The fallout affected the youngest players all the way up the ladder to some of the top junior leagues on the planet.

Hopefully not too many hockey dreams were shattered, but certainly many were put on hold for at least the short term.

And for the top elite female hockey players in Canada, COVID turned out to be a double whammy as not only were their seasons severely shortened or cancelled, but also the opportunity to compete for their country on an international stage was taken away.

While tournament organizers for events such as the men’s World Junior and U18 World Championships figured out how to sidestep COVID restrictions and provide many hockey fans around the globe with some much-needed high-level hockey to enjoy during difficult times, similar women’s events got the short end of the hockey stick, so to speak.

Both the International Ice Hockey Federation men’s and women’s World Championships were cancelled during the height of COVID last spring, but so far this year the WJC and U18 men’s tournaments have been completed. Meanwhile, the women’s U18 tournament scheduled to be played in Sweden Jan. 5-12 – just after the WJC, by the way – was cancelled in September.

More recently, thanks to the ongoing restrictions in Canada, the 2021 Women’s World Championship scheduled to be played this week in Nova Scotia was initially cancelled before being rescheduled in the face of tremendous public outcry for late August at a yet-to-be-determined site in Canada.

While the decision to reschedule gives us hope that a tournament of some sort will be held this summer, nothing is guaranteed in the world of COVID. And it certainly doesn’t do anything to make up for the U18 women’s event being shut down.

It was just a about a year ago that four young Canadian women who played for the Burlington Jr. Barracudas in Ontario took the first steps toward fulfilling lifelong dreams of representing their country on the ice. Emails were sent and invitations to attend the nation’s U18 World Championship Summer Camp were received. They were four of the top 59 players from around the country who were slected.

The players’ excitement couldn’t be contained.

“When I first received the email saying that I was chosen for the Team Canada women’s Under-18 Team, there was immediate excitement, a little bit of relief, as well as a little voice that said I had better keep working hard to earn that spot,” Olivia Muhn, a 2003 defender and Yale University commit, said. “I never want anyone to second guess that I deserved a place representing my country, so from that, I have worked even harder, with even more focus. The idea of representing Canada, and that so few people get to do it, has such large implications, and is joyfully humbling.”

Her teammate, 2003 forward and University of Connecticut-commit Christina Walker, was equally excited.

“The first thing I did after I read the email was run outside to tell my dad,” she said. “Then to tell my mom. I owe everything to my parents; they have done everything for me to be able to play this sport and pursue my goals.”

Leah MacSween, a 2003 forward heading to Cornell, was both excited and reflective.

“There are so many great players in Ontario and all across Canada, and I was so honored to be named among them.”

And Tijana Miskovic, a 2003 D who also will be attending and playing for Yale in the fall, simply was in disbelief as if she had just been the brunt of a friend’s cruel April Fool’s Day joke

“I was in denial,” she recalled. “I was overwhelmed with emotions. I was extremely happy, excited and grateful to have received that email along with not believing it was real. It has always been a dream of mine to represent my country and having received that email I thought I was dreaming. I was proud of myself, and it solidified that hard work and determination is key. The first thing that popped into my mind was wearing the Canadian jersey. Just thinking about it made me so excited and happy; it was unreal.”

While hockey gains traction in terms of popularity and recognition in the United States on a daily basis, Americans will never quite feel the same way about the sport that Canadians do.

We’ve seen the rabid sold-out crowds that turn out to support the home team when a Canadian city hosts the WJC, we’ve heard about the thousands of fans who regularly head to local Canadian rinks to watch junior hockey games and we’ve witnessed the joy and emotion on the faces of male and female players – as well as the fans – whenever a Canadian team wins a gold medal and “O Canada” is played.

Very few moments in sports anywhere in the world rival those. There is no higher honor among young Canadian hockey players than to wear the maple leaf.

Fortunately for these four women who are going on to play NCAA Division I hockey in the U.S., there may be other future opportunities to represent their country on the ice. But nothing is guaranteed in hockey, especially when your home nation produces many of the best players in the world and you will always have to beat out exceptional veterans who already have achieved international success as well as hungry, up-and-coming youngsters who are looking to move in front of you on the depth chart.

Each of the four Jr. Barracudas who earned Summer Camp invites knew immediately that an amazing opportunity was ahead, but that the hard work was just beginning. Little did anyone know that their first opportunity to play for Canada ultimately would be taken away by a mystifying and deadly virus that would shut down a large portion of the world for more than a year.

“I think the hardest thing to accept for me was that the women's team did not receive the same opportunity as the men’s team,” Miskovic said. “We could have undergone the same protocols as the men’s {WJC team} and therefore been given the same chance to play … I watched Canada's {WJC} games and seeing them play the game they love while I was sitting on my couch made me super emotional. I was overwhelmed with emotion for how far the men got and the effort they put into each game. But I could only wish that the women received the same opportunity as well.”

There is no Under-20 World Junior Championship for Women, so the U18 event is considered the sport’s equivalent for female players. After that, players vie for spots on senior national teams that compete in the Olympics and World Championship. There are also development teams and other developmental opportunities available within Hockey Canada to keep the athletes on track for future opportunities.

Muhn was disappointed, too, but also watched the games and found herself pulling for the guys despite those feelings.

“I enjoyed watching and was proud of them,” she said. “I am familiar with how much work, time and effort they have dedicated into reaching that goal. In my hope for fairness, for equal opportunity and simply a chance to play, I was never upset at the men’s team. For me, I tried to be supportive.”

Walker also said she watched the games and supported her countrymen while coping with her feelings of disappointment. But more than just not being able to play, the realization that she would never again have this particular opportunity hit her pretty hard.

“It is understandable that world tournaments were being shut down due to COVID-19, and it is also realistic that the World Juniors has a lot of money behind them and the resources to continue with their tournament,” she said, “but it doesn’t lessen the disappointment we all felt. Another thing that was hard to accept was that I would never get this opportunity again, as I was aging out of the U18 level.”

MacSween was happy for the male Canadian players and wanted the best result for them.

“I wasn’t too surprised that the boys’ tournament still took place,” she said. “I personally didn’t find it hard to watch at all. Although I don’t know any of the boys on the team personally, I was very proud and happy for each and every one of them. It's an incredible opportunity, and I wouldn’t want them to miss out on it just because we did.”

The maturity the Jr. Barracuda players demonstrate in discussing their feelings while holding no ill will toward any of the players on the men’s side has been on display since they initially found out they were invited to try out for the U18 national team. They have nothing but positive things to say about the effort put forth by Hockey Canada and the lengths that the national governing body went to in working around COVID restrictions to put together a comprehensive online Summer Camp that was both beneficial and made them feel like part of the national-team program.

“The overall experience with Hockey Canada was awesome,” Walker said. “I learned so many things about the program, hockey and ways I can bring my game to the next level. Obviously, because it was all online, it was a bit of a different experience, but every call was interesting and had lots of information to take away from it.”

The program consisted of weekly online sessions overing everything that would normally happen during the selection camp. There were Sunday Zoom sessions and video lessons with coaches to go over systems. Players had sessions with nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and mental health specialists. On- and off-ice training was discussed along with ways that players could continue to work and grow on their own despite the circumstances.

In addition, players who previously had been members of U18 national teams appeared on calls to talk about their experiences and provide advice. Muhn appreciated the program and thought it was effective given the situation Hockey Canada and the players faced.

“It was well thought out, and overall, it was excellent,” she said. “Adapting to provincial and national recommendations with limited contact and no ice, they were very good at helping us feel part of the team, focusing on some areas of development, helping us get to know each other and having fun. Nothing can replace an in-person training camp, but I did feel like it was meaningful and a rich experience for me.”

Miskovic concurred with her teammates, calling the overall experience “amazing” and praising the hard work and attention to detail that went into making the athletes feel like they were an integral part of Hockey Canada and being proud of their accomplishments.  

“They did an outstanding job considering the unfortunate, challenging circumstances,” Miskovic said. “Hockey Canada did an amazing job at making me feel welcome. They made it their job to make us feel proud of this accomplishment even though we weren't able to experience the camp in person.”

The decision to cancel the tournament came in September after the group had spent a great deal of time navigating the Hockey Canada virtual camp throughout the summer. Upon hearing about the cancellation, which was upsetting but not surprising to most of the players, the Jr. Barracuda teammates were determined to turn a negative into a positive.

MacSween talked about having more time to work on aspects of her game that she previously hadn’t had time to develop. Walker said she enjoyed having more time to spend with her family and being able to put additional effort into strength training and other areas of her game and life that she wanted to improve. Miskovic used the additional free time to turn her attention toward putting her thoughts, future opportunities and goals on paper, dwelling on the positives and all the doors that being selected to be part of the camp might open for her.

Muhn felt that the faith and positive outlook instilled in her through family dynamics prepared her for COVID and everything that came along with it.

“I felt partially prepared for dealing with the unknown,” Muhn said. “Recognizing early that there wasn’t going to be a season was important and working under the assumption of a worst-case scenario helped the team and I plan. We used this to become significantly stronger, more agile and mobile. We worked on correcting minor issues, and truthfully, if were in the midst of a season, it would have been hard to recalibrate in that way. The wear and tear from high-level hockey is significant, especially when there aren’t many breaks. I’ve been able to spend some time working on various skillsets, such as high-level offensive maneuvers, stride progressions and the mechanics of a newer and stronger, more purposeful shot.”

The fact that four young hockey players who came from the same club team are destined for NCAA Division I opportunities in the U.S., earned invitations to the national team summer camp for their age group and handled this exciting, yet extremely stressful and difficult situation so admirably speaks volumes about the organization from which they came.

Three of the four players have been with the program since they were very young – some as long as 11 years – and the fourth player has been with the organization for four years. They speak in glowing terms about the support provided by the organization and its coaches, with head coach Kevin Greco and assistant coaches Jamie Suitor, Mike Gauthier and Frank Kastelic being praised consistently. Of course, mom and dad also get a lot of credit from the players for their achievements.

“The organization is so committed to the progression of their athletes that even in times like this, Zoom training is provided to maintain maximum strength,” Miskovic said. “The organization has been nothing but amazing, supportive and helpful to me. Without their commitment to media exposure, player profiles and the constant support of helping their athletes achieve their goals, I would not be the player I am today.”

Muhn added: “Coach Kevin has taught me to make the best out of a situation when possible, and although he encouraged me to dedicate much time to training, to still make time to give back to those around me. These characteristics that he has instilled in each of his players are traits that will allow us to be contributing adults, as we have been given the opportunity to balance our lives as athletes while being the best people and the best representation of the Barracudas.”

Of course, as to be expected the organization is extremely proud of its four outstanding ambassadors. Greco marvels at how the four players have handled this situation from beginning to end and raves about their determination, mental toughness, work ethic, intelligence, commitment to daily improvement and impressive skill level.

“There is never a worry with these girls,” he said. “They have been working hard, remained focused, remained positive and continued getting better and working on all parts of their game. Obviously, everyone is disappointed there was no season and no game play, but they have been so mature and positive about the whole situation.”

To a person, each of the four Jr. Barracudas has overcome the disappointments of the past year and used what they have been through as motivation to push forward and a learning experience to fall back on in the future.

“I think that the most important lesson is to not lose focus despite the circumstances,” MacSween said. “Whether it’s due to the current pandemic or an injury, you’re going to face challenges, but as long as you keep your goals in mind and stay focused you will be successful.”

There's little doubt that this group of impressive women will continue to be successful on and off the ice. 

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