KENORA, Ont. -- What once stood as a gigantic gulch of skill disparity has been filled in, leveled off, and paved over.
An even playing field has taken its place.
Not even a decade ago, veterans of Canada's women's hockey team stood on one side of the canyon, peering down on the young, up-and-comers over yonder as they wrestled with the reality of crossing the great divide.
After the completion of the women's Fall Festival in Kenora, Ont. Saturday night, head coach Melody Davidson stood rink-side, scratching her head, trying to come to terms with what she bore witness to all week.
"This week was really intense, very competitive," she said. "The last time we had this many players together, it was just a few years ago, and I'd say there was a much bigger gap. It was huge actually.
"Now, it has become very competitive. There's tremendous depth. It's difficult for me to assess, but it's much more difficult for the players. They can't let up at all because there's somebody coming right over their shoulder."
Winnipeg's Sami Jo Small realizes she's just taken the first step onto the mountain of work that lies ahead. And she's wasting no time starting.
This morning, Small was on a plane from Winnipeg, heading to her club team, the Toronto Aeros, for a Sunday night practice.
The goaltender said the camp gave her the opportunity not only to meet new people and compete for a spot on the national team, but have some fun as well.
"You're always trying to work hard and you're doing that every year regardless of the position you're in," she said. "But after you've been to a couple of these as a veteran, you can have a little more fun with it and take it all in.
"Every year you have to work as hard as you possibly can and with the talent level getting so close, it's only going to get harder every year."
The Festival, which brought 57 of the nation's most talented women to cottage country for a week, was the team's first time on the ice as a group since winning Olympic gold in Turin, Italy and the first step towards the IIHF Women's World Championships in Winnipeg and Selkirk, April 3-10.
Now the coaching staff will be preparing depth charts for a year's worth of scouting trips which will see players selected for both the Four Nations Cup in Kitchener, Ont., Nov. 7-11 and the Worlds.
Davidson said she won't be picking a team captain until just weeks before heading to Winnipeg and sees the potential for any number of players to be wearing the C, based on the Fall Festival.
"Vicky (Sunohara) and Hayley (Wickenheiser) have both worn As and done a tremendous job," Davidson said. "We'll name a captain for (the Four Nation), and then again just prior to the World Championships."