When her plane landed at Saskatoon’s International Airport, it finally dawned on Sophie Shirley that she would be playing for Team Canada — and in her hometown.
The 24-year-old forward was at a dog park when she got the call to join the national team midway through the best-of-seven rivalry series against the U.S. Women’s National Team that currently holds a 3-1 series lead over the red-and-white.
“Super excited to get this opportunity to show them what I got,” Shirley said after practising with the team on Tuesday.
The Rivalry Series, which has so far had games in Arizona, California and Ontario, has been on hold since Game 4 on Dec. 16. The players have spent the last month playing in the newly formed Professional Women’s Hockey League. They are switching those jerseys — Shirley’s own being a green Boston Pride sweater — for the Maple Leaf.
Shirley will be facing off against her Boston captain, Hilary Knight, when the teams hit the ice.
Shirley won’t be the only Saskatoon-bred forward on the team. Emily Clark, who played with Shirley’s brothers growing up, will also be playing her first professional game in Saskatoon.
“It’s extremely surreal to be back home at all, playing hockey at this level, especially with the national team,” she said. “It’s honestly so special. It’s a dream come true that I didn’t even know that I could have.”
And it’s a dream that seems to be real for younger hockey fans watching the Canadians practise at Merlis Belsher Place in Saskatoon.
Among those in the small crowd were girls wearing the Maple Leaf with Clark’s name and No. 26 stitched on the back.
It’s not unlike how Clark’s career started.
“When I was five years old I got to meet Dana Antal here, and that one single autograph fuelled my dream to make the Olympic team one day. So to know that the young girls and boys get to see this calibre of hockey and get inspired by us today and tomorrow, it really means a lot to me.”
The links with teammates in the PWHL hasn’t reduced the tension ahead Wednesday’s night’s game against at the SaskTel Centre.
“We’ve got a job to do tomorrow and we want that win,” Clark said. “The girls are hungry for it.”
The rival U.S. team was on the ice Tuesday to prepare for Game 5.
Head coach Troy Ryan knows the value in winning against a rival, but says it doesn’t change what the competition will be like during the IIHF World Championships set for April 3-14 in Utica, N.Y.
“We want to find a way to get back in this rivalry series and if we’re successful, great, that’s great preparation for Worlds,” he said. “But, also knowing success in the rival series doesn’t ultimately mean success in the world championship.”
Last year, Canada came back from a 3-0 series deficit to win.
Regardless of how Wednesday’s game ends, the series will continue on to Regina for Game 6, and its final game in Minnesota on Sunday.