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New women's pro hockey league injects extra fizz into Rivalry Series

Emily Clark hasn't played a hockey game in her hometown in over a decade. She was named to the Canadian women's team for the 2018 Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon.
Canada forward Emily Clark (26) knocks Switzerland defender Sarah Forster (3) off the puck during first period IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship semifinal hockey action in Brampton, Ont., on Saturday April 15, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Emily Clark hasn't played a hockey game in her hometown in over a decade.

She was named to the Canadian women's team for the 2018 Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon. An ill-timed leg injury before the tournament planted her in the stands wearing a walking boot.

So the 27-year-old forward wants to play for Canada in this winter's seven-game Rivalry Series against the United States that includes a stop in Saskatoon.

"Who gets to play for the national team, so few people get to, in your hometown? That was one of the hardest things I had to go through with that injury and kind of missing out on that opportunity," Clark told The Canadian Press.

"To hopefully have the chance to do it again, it would just mean everything to me to play on home ice in Saskatoon in front of my family, friends and people who are from where I'm from."

Hockey Canada announced dates and locations Tuesday for the 2023-24 edition of the Rivalry Series: Nov. 8 in Tempe, Ariz., Nov. 11 in Los Angeles, Dec. 14 in Kitchener, Ont., Dec. 16 in Sarnia, Ont., Feb. 7 in Saskatoon, Feb. 9 in Regina and Feb. 11 in St. Paul., Minn. 

Canada dropped the first three games of last year's series before winning four in a row to take it. This year's series has the new Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL) as a backdrop.

The PWHL's 24-game schedule in its inaugural season will start on or around Jan. 1.

Training camps for the six teams in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, New York and Minneapolis-St. Paul start Nov. 13. 

So the majority of Canadians and Americans in the Rivalry Series will quickly pivot from the first two games in southwest U.S. to getting on the ice with their respective PWHL clubs to prepare for the league's first season.

"I think the timing is amazing," said Canadian defender Renata Fast." There's a ton of buzz for women's hockey coming off all the news with the new league.

"I feel the Rivalry Series, the first couple dates in November is kind of the kickoff of hockey season for women's hockey altogether. There's a little bit of stress from players who have to relocate to new markets for the pro league and then potentially have the Rivalry Series right before."

Added Clark: "We're training hard right now even though we're not in-season. It's a bit of an extended off-season, but what better way to get us ready for training camp than two games against the U. S.?"

Fast of Burlington, Ont., and Clark will be high on head coach Troy Ryan's depth chart to wear the Maple Leaf in the Rivalry Series. The two-time Olympians won gold in 2022 and helped Canada win back-to-back world titles in 2021 and 2022.

They were quickly snapped up in free agency as soon as the PWHL's window opened Sept. 1 — Fast by Toronto and Clark by Ottawa. Ryan is also Fast's PWHL coach in Toronto.

Canada (48 players) and the United States (29) dominated the PWHL's Sept. 18 draft, but 13 Europeans from seven different countries were also chosen.

The PWHL intends to work with the international calendar and build in breaks for the women to compete for their respective countries. The 2024 women's world championship April 3-14 is in Utica, N.Y.

If Clark gets the Rivalry Series call, she could end up squaring off against her Ottawa teammate Savannah Harmon on the U.S. side.

"It's pretty easy to turn that teammate-enemy switch on and off," Clark said. "Me and Savannah Harmon have become pretty good friends. In the last Rivalry Series, in Seattle, we took coincidental minors for checking each other in the head."

Fast is interested to see how quickly and dramatically the new league will impact the international game. That was a topic of conversation among players at September's national team camp in Thorold, Ont., she said.

"It's going to change a lot of things for the national team," the 28-year-old predicted. "When you're on the national team, you kind of have a role that you're in and sometimes you don't get the opportunity to play in different situations and play different roles. 

"Now with the professional league, where players are dispersed among six teams, there's going to be opportunity for players to play different roles and maybe get more exposure. Lines might change, players might be given more opportunities in different areas.

"I truly feel that it's going to be harder to make the national team moving forward just because players are having a place to play for longer and to develop later."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press