Hockey Canada

Pregnancy creates opening in goal on women's hockey team

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The Canadian Press
9/22/2011 6:22:10 PM
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CALGARY -- Change happens at a glacial pace when it comes to goaltending on the Canadian women's hockey team.

A decision by 12-year veteran Kim St. Pierre to take the season off and have a baby has created a rare job opening.

There are just three spots, compared to six on defence and 12 at forward, on the national team. It's a hard slog to that coveted start in a gold-medal game because the goalies get few chances in a limited international schedule to showcase their skills.

Christina Kessler of Mississauga, Ont., and Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., are at a national team camp in Calgary this week alongside veterans Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., and Edmonton's Shannon Szabados.

Kessler, 23, and Lacasse, 22 realize St. Pierre's pregnancy creates an opportunity that doesn't come around often. They want to be on Canada's team at the Four Nations Cup in November and at the 2012 world championship next April.

"I know that myself and Lacasse are eager to step in the door," Kessler said Thursday. "There is a lot of pressure on us, but it's up to us to be prepared for games and worry about what we have to do individually and ultimately stop the puck."

St. Pierre and Labonte owned the two jobs on the national team for five years until 2009, when the International ice Hockey Federation allowed women's teams to carry three goalies like the men could. Szabados had been waiting in the wings for three years as Canada's alternate at major championships.

Still, only one can play in a game. In a non-Olympic year prior to 2010, Canada played about a dozen international games in a season. So the stakes in even intra-squad games and exhibition games against boys' midget teams were high for the goalies.

Labonte toiled in the shadow of Sami Jo Small and St. Pierre for years before starting in the championship game and winning gold against Sweden at the 2006 Winter Olympics.

"There's only three of us in the whole nation, so of course I feel very honoured and privileged to be here, but it's tough," Labonte said. "You need to understand that you might not be playing, you might be sitting in the stands and accept your role. I've played all the roles."

Canada scheduled over 50 games in the six months leading up to the 2010 Olympics. Szabados made the most of a sudden wealth of games to move up the depth chart. She earned the start against the U.S. in the gold-medal game in Vancouver and was named the tournament's top goalie.

"It takes awhile. You've got to work your way up," Szabados said. "I spent my fair share of time in the stands and I'm sure I will in the future as well. It's a tough position to be in and one you've got to work hard for."

Kessler was Canada's alternate goalie at the 2010 Four Nations Cup, but didn't dress for any games. She and Lacasse benefited from the IIHF's recent addition of another tournament to the women's calendar.

Instead of naming the usual suspects of St. Pierre, Labonte and Szabados to the roster for the inaugural 12 Nations Tournament in August, Hockey Canada took Kessler, Lacasse and Liz Knox. All played against the United States, which is Canada's top rival.

Kessler made 39 saves in a 4-0 loss to the Americans. In another game against the U.S., Knox gave up two goals in the first two minutes. She was replaced by Lacasse, who made over 40 saves as Canada rebounded for a 4-3 shootout win.

"You're really pumped up and you've been waiting for this time for a long time," Lacasse said. "To put that Maple Leaf on and be able to go on the ice and show your stuff, it's amazing. I kind of showed what I had. I hadn't had a chance to show my skills other than in practice."

According to Canadian head coach Dan Church, Lacasse is a battler, who is instinctual in net and needs to hone her technique. Kessler relies on solid technique and could add some of Lacasse's intensity to her game, Church said.

"They both have different styles, but both are very effective in how they play the game," Church said.

The four goalies at this week's camp have disparate playing environments outside the national team.

Kessler plays in the Canadian Women's Hockey League for Burlington. Lacasse is in her senior year of NCAA hockey at Providence. Labonte, 28, is entering her fifth and final year of Canadian university hockey with the McGill Martlets.

Szabados, 25, plays men's hockey in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference for the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT). She spent the last two seasons with Grant MacEwan's men's team.

Because Church doesn't see his goalies tested in game situations as much his defence and forwards, he watches them in practice drills to see who is sharp and confident. Szabados and Kessler were the only players on the ice with Church and his assistants in a Thursday morning goalie session.

"It's one of the most important times when you are out there and there's only two of you and you've got the head coach shooting at you," Szabados said. "Even when you're warming up and cooling down, they're watching.

"You have to have your game-face on, even when there's no game."

Kim St. Pierre (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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