TORONTO — Training camp has served as a chance for Sarah Nurse to reunite with some players and get acquainted with others.
The star Canadian forward has been around fellow national team members, as well as American teammates who have been rivals on the international level, while training with Toronto's team in the Professional Women's Hockey League.
“I think it’s great. To be able to play alongside somebody like a Blayre Turnbull — I went to university with her in Wisconsin, but we’ve been separated for the last five years (with) her being in Calgary,” Nurse said Wednesday after practice. “Just seeing her day to day is pretty impressive.
“Obviously, we have players who are the best in the world on this team, so to be able to compete against them every day and then go to battle with them in games is pretty exciting.
“Playing with somebody like Jesse Compher or Kali Flanagan, and those are two players that I’ve played against, so having a newfound respect for their games that I may not have necessarily seen when they were on the U.S. national team. It’s been a pretty cool combination, a pretty cool mix.”
The Canadian and U.S. women’s programs have a historic rivalry dating back to the 1990s, with both dominating the sport at world championships and Olympic Games.
The two sides have also competed in the annual seven-game Rivalry Series, with five Canadians on Toronto competing in this season's edition.
But on the ice in Toronto, players could be seen sharing tips and laughs with one another as the team went through practice.
Forward Natalie Spooner called it “exciting” to play alongside American players the calibre of Compher and Flanagan.
“I guess you’re finally getting to know them off the ice a lot more,” she said. “I always say, whatever jersey you put on, if they were wearing an American jersey, for sure we’d go at it. Even at practice, I’m sure if they’re wearing a different colour jersey, we’re going to fight and make each other better.
“But at the end of the day, when we put on our team jersey, our Toronto jersey, we want the best for each other and that’s what’s going to make us a great team.”
“When you’re here, it doesn’t really feel like national team and Toronto. It just feels like you’re one big team,” she added.
Compher echoed a similar sentiment.
"I walked into this locker room knowing about two people on a personal level, maybe three," she said. "I’ve played against a bunch of these girls for a long time now.
"But the second that I walked into this rink and this locker room, between the staff and other players, you kind of just have this immediate bond that we’re going to be here together for a while, and we all have the same goal. We’re here to become better athletes and to keep growing the game of women’s hockey."
Toronto head coach Troy Ryan said the familiarity among players who played with and against one another helped during the draft and free agent processes for gaining intel.
For general manager Gina Kingsbury, who is also GM for Canada, the relationships the players build in Toronto could be greater than that of a national team experience.
“It’s great to see the new faces,” said Kingsbury, who won two Olympic gold and three world titles for Canada as a player. “It’s great to have different players from different countries."
“It’s not something that everyone gets to do," she added. "To be able to represent a city and to be with a group every day for an entire season … there’s more than just a short-term competition you’re getting ready for. It’s really special. To me, the relationships that get built within that are the relationships that last for a lifetime."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2023.
Abdulhamid Ibrahim, The Canadian Press