Nats savour return home

ADAM WAZNY -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 12:15 PM ET

Playing for the Canadian national women's hockey team means not only representing your country, but also being a role model for thousands of young women.

No one demands you do it, nor is it mandatory. It's just something that comes with the territory.

"We all know it wasn't that long ago that we were that girl watching the Olympics," team member Jennifer Botterill said. "When you have moments where younger athletes are looking up to you, it feels pretty special."

Botterill, fellow Winnipegger Sami Jo Small and officials with the national women's team were in town yesterday to generate excitement for an exhibition game featuring the reigning Olympic gold medalists from Canada against the current world champions from the United States.

The two sides will skate at the MTS Centre on New Year's Day at 2:30 p.m. -- the final international warm-up for Canada before February's Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.

While the exhibition matches are important and the rivalry with the U.S club has been well documented, Botterill's status as an influence on aspiring women hockey players isn't something she takes lightly, either.

Yes, her mother is a former Olympic speed skater but there was no real hockey influence in her life outside of her older brother Jason. A self-proclaimed "ringette girl," Botterill didn't start playing hockey until she was 13-years-old, starting with sibling battles in the basement and moving on to action at the Wildwood Community Club.

"It was the classic Canadian thing," the 26-year-old forward recalls. "Throw the skates and stick over your shoulder and just walk down to the end of the street to the rink."

Shinny with Jason and his friends was a nice diversion, but it wasn't until she saw him play in the Red and White that she knew what she wanted to do.

"My brother played on the world junior teams," she said. "To see him in a Team Canada jersey with our name on the back ... for me that was really moving. When I was young I knew that I wanted to go to the Olympics, I just didn't know what sport.

"Seeing my brother play in that jersey, it really inspired me."

Not only will the New Year's Day game be a homecoming of sorts for Botterill, Small and Pilot Mound's Delaney Collins, it marks the return of the women's national team to Winnipeg ice. The last time it suited up here was Dec. 6, 1997, when Canada beat the U.S. 5-4 at the Winnipeg Arena.

For Small, her drought is even more severe.

The last time she played in a local big barn was as a six-year-old during an intermission of a Jets game.

"This is where I grew up, this is where I've played my hockey, this is where everybody who has gotten me to where I am -- everybody who is important -- lives," said Small, who is in competition with two other players for two goaltender spots on the Olympic roster.

Small, 29, admits to lobbying for a chance to play at the MTS Centre. It would be special to her for the simple reason it would give those family members, friends, and former coaches a chance to see her play for Canada.

In person, not on television.

"Most of them won't get the chance to be over in Turin to watch us at the Olympics, so this is really my moment to be able to thank all of those people," she said. "It's like the Olympic Gold medal final. I already have butterflies.

"Hopefully I do get to play here. This would be the pinnacle of my sporting career, for sure."

Tickets for the New Year's Day game are available at Ticketmaster.


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