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With pride and authenticity

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For the first time in the history of Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team, six members of the same club team will play together at the IIHF World Women’s U18 Championship

Competing for a spot on Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team with the best players across the country can be a daunting task. But for many Team Canada members, they had five of their teammates by their side during the process.

Avi Adam, Reichen Kirchmair, Sarah MacEachern, Mari Pietersen, Alyssa Regalado and Mckenna Van Gelder all play with the Etobicoke Dolphins in the Elite U22 division of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA). Now, the three forwards, two defensemen and one goaltender have traded 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 being in a selection camp,” said 17-year-old Pietersen. “Knowing that I have the support of my five teammates who are here with me, [it] much like a home away from home.

This is the first time in the history of Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team that there are six players from the same club on one roster. Since 2008, there have been five instances of Team Canada having four members on one team, primarily the pursuit of excellence in the Canadian School and Sports Hockey League (CSSHL) in 2018.

“Having the girls here with me today, I feel so supported,” said 18-year-old Van Gelder. “We’ve all been through the same thing. We can all talk about it among ourselves. And it’s just a good thing to have some of your best friends here with you.

The chemistry between the Dolphins isn’t limited to this season either. Adam, MacEachern, Regalado and Van Gelder will be heading to Cornell University together in the fall. Kirchmair, Regalado and Van Gelder have been part of the Dolphins U22 squad since the 2019-20 season. Even further, 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 she’s a great hockey player,” said Regalado, 18, of Van Gelder. “It’s so good to be able to experience these great achievements with her and to be able to play with her at this next level.”

The preparation to play for Team Canada can be linked to their time in Etobicoke. Head coach Joe Butkevich says the team is focused on educating players about professionalism, strength conditioning and expectations on and off the ice – all intangibles that pay off in the selection process. ‘National team.

“They’ve accomplished so much, whether it’s academically, scholarships or provincial programs, and now the national program. It was great to sit like one of their fans,” Butkevich said. “We just play a small role in helping them get to where they are, so it’s been phenomenal. It was a trip like no other.

The 2021-22 season for the Dolphins has been a journey in itself. After finishing first in their division, the Dolphins had a tough League Championship weekend and finished second to Durham West Lightning. In the two weeks leading up to the provincial tournament, Etobicoke felt like it had unfinished business and focused on its next goal: winning the OWHA title.

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

“It’s kind of the end of a storybook for us, especially for kids who have been in the program for three or two years,” Butkevich says. “I wanted it for them. They give themselves body and soul to our program, and they did everything.

“It was surreal. I’m still on cloud nine,” Van Gelder said of his provincial title win. “Everyone was just playing for each other at that time. No one cared who got the points. No one cared who had ice time. We just wanted to say that we were provincial champions. We wanted this medal around the neck.

Of Team Canada’s six Dolphins, only Pietersen will return to Etobicoke next season before heading to Boston University in 2023. She’s soaking up the experience of the IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship so she can share with her teammates next season.

“I’ll be an older girl with the team next year, so [I can] offer more of a leadership role [to] lots of younger girls,” says Pietersen. “Kind of showing them what it was like to be [on] a national team and hopefully be someone they can look up to.

From the regular season to the playoffs, to representation on Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team, the Etobicoke community has been with these six players every step of the way.

“I think we all choked up 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 shooting for each other,” Butkevich says.

“Playing in Etobicoke was incredible,” added Pietersen. “The community is so close. Our team was the closest team I have ever been on. Always supporting each other through players, staff, families. It motivates you so much and makes you feel like you always have someone to go to.

Having a trusted community support system is also beneficial when competing on an international stage for the first time in your career.

“During these times it can get very stressful as everyone is trying to look their best and perform at their highest level,” Regalado says. “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 about what’s going on right now and just focus on having a good laugh, I just think that’s really important.

As the IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship continues in Madison and Middleton, Wis., the Dolphins six are looking forward to the experience not only with their Etobicoke teammates, but also with their new Team Canada family.

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

“Now it’s just about being a good teammate,” adds Regalado. “I came this far. They know how I can play… how can I support my teammates?

“The good relationships on and off the ice will really allow us to succeed and hopefully win a gold medal at the end.”

There may be six Dolphins on the ice in Wisconsin, but there will be another in the stands. Butkevich will be in person at the U18 Women’s Worlds, cheering on her players as they wear the maple leaf.

“I have a Hockey Canada jersey with all of their name bars on the back, so I’m pretty excited. I feel like a second father to them, I get goosebumps right now thinking about it,” Butkevich said. “I can’t wait to see them as a fan, not as a coach but, apart from their family, their biggest supporter.”