Natalie Spooner will wear her jersey on Sunday afternoon, and she’ll scream at a giant projection screen in the backyard of her home in Komoka, Ont., as she watches her teammates take on the Americans for a gold medal at the world championships in Denmark. .
For the first time in more than a decade, Spooner – who will be cheering on Canada with her husband, parents and a few neighbors – won’t be much of the action herself. And that, sports fans, hasn’t been easy so far.
“His way watching more stressful,” says the double Olympic and world champion. The dynamic forward with a big smile made her world championship debut in 2011 and has been on every Canadian roster since, until this year. “Like, it’s so much more stressful.”
Spooner is on the shelf because she is six months pregnant and expecting a son in December. The 31-year-old is on the ice twice a week, working on power skating and skill, but body contact isn’t exactly doctor-advised.
The new fan role is “strange,” Spooner admits, but neither is it. “I look at myself and imagine hitting people with this belly – that would be interesting,” she laughs. “It’s a little easier to know why I’m not here. I miss the girls, I miss the atmosphere, I miss the competition and all that. But I try to keep in touch with the girls and see how it goes there.
There, it’s the final game, featuring the sport’s best rivalry: reigning world and Olympic champions Canada against an American team that took the top seed in Denmark with a 5 -2 against Canada in the preliminary round. match.
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To help set up Sunday’s gold medal final (the puck drops at 1:30 p.m. ET), Sportsnet caught up with Spooner, after she’d played a round of golf, with another national team veteran. Canadian, former goaltender Sami Jo Small — a four-time world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist — who kindly agreed to chat after a long shift with TSN. Like Spooner, Small will be watching the action on Sunday, and very closely, as she offers crackerjack analysis as a panelist on the TSN show.
Spooner and Small break down what they think are the differences in the game, they discuss which players surprised them, which team has the advantage in the net, and they offer their completely biased predictions for who goes home with those coveted gold medals.
What will be the difference factor?
Spoon : Establishing the chemistry up and down across the lines is really important. (Canadian team coach Troy Ryan) totally flipped the lineup in the quarter-finals, so it’ll be really interesting to see the lines in the final. [In the quarter-final, for example, captain Marie-Philip Poulin had a new winger in Victoria Bach, and centre Sara Fillier, who’s been dynamite while averaging more than a point per game, had two new wingers].
If I think back to the Olympics, one of the best things was that it was any of the four lines that could come out and score at any time, all four lines were rolling. If we can get some chemistry between at least a few lines, I think that will keep the momentum going in Canada’s favour.
Little: What I have in the back of my mind is that the Canadians haven’t really found the chemistry yet. Obviously, they’ve won all of their games, but they’re not quite clicking. They have incredible individual efforts, and they have sparks, they generate incredible plays, but it’s not sustained. I’m really curious if this is Coach Ryan’s final lineup or is he holding his cards close to his chest so the Americans can’t see?
I’m really curious to see what adjustments he can make to the team we saw in the preliminary match against the Americans, all the way to the final. He’s keeping us guessing, that’s for sure… I’m looking for Coach Ryan to make some changes that will miraculously get the Canadiens putting pucks in the net and then they’ll just rely on [goalie] Ann-Renee [Desbiens] be the safety net that she can be.
Spoon : I think (Coach Ryan) will go back to some old lines and have some new ones based on what he thought worked and didn’t work.
He’s really good at telling players what you’re good at and what you need to bring to the team. Before the Olympics, here’s how nice he is: he wrote us all individual notes about what you mean to the team and what you bring. We each knew what our role was. You would just walk through a brick wall because you know, that’s what I can do, and we can win if we do those things. I think what he is able to get out of his players is something special.
Who has the advantage between the posts among the likely starters, Nicole Hensley for the Americans and Ann Renee Desbiens for Canada?
Spoon : Ah yes, it’s Desbiens. Desbiens is a big player. She makes saves out of nowhere to save the team. She gives our team a lot of confidence when she’s in goal. Of course, if she plays in the final, she will definitely do her part to make sure our team wins this game.
Little: Canada doesn’t just have a slight advantage in goalkeeping, I would give them a huge advantage there. It’s not her technique that makes Desbiens one of the best goalkeepers in the world, it’s her confidence and her ability to stay calm in big moments and have that composure for her team. In conversations with [veteran Canadian defender] Renata Fast, she feels so confident there with Ann Renee. It gives them that boost to have that little bit more attack or pinch a little deeper. You always know that no matter what, she’ll be back there.
Any surprises from either team?
Little: For me, it was these young American players who were incredible, with incredible performances on a big stage in their first major tournament. That was the question mark: can their young guns replace veterans like a Brianna Decker [she’s out after breaking her leg at the Olympics]or a Megan Bozek [she retired post-Olympics]. The Americans had huge losses and even if you can’t replace players like that, what these young people have brought has really lifted this team, thanks to youth and exuberance but also to performance.
Taylor Heise was amazing [she had a hat-trick in the quarter-final]and Hannah Bilka [who also had a hat-trick in the quarter-final] has been awesome. Lacey Eden was great. Their young guns are really, really impressive. And [coach John Wroblewski] also uses them in big roles. It doesn’t necessarily happen on the Canadian team right away, you kind of work your way up, you owe your dues. But right now Hannah Bilka is playing alongside Hilary Knight and she’s playing the lights out.
spoon: I know everyone on Team Canada is amazing, so there are no surprises. Ella Shelton was really good at D. At the Olympics she played and didn’t have a lot of ice time, and now she’s playing confident and jumping in the game, she’s playing really well. You see all the regulars, they all look good: Laura Stacey looks really fast, [Sarah] Potomak scored this amazing goal [in the quarter-final]Bacher [Victoria Bach] scored some great goals. I think if they can keep their confidence and have that swagger, it will be really good for the big game.
Spoon : Ok, I’m going to make sure Canada wins. I call the most generic scoreline because I feel like every game we play them is 3-2. So let’s go with 3-2. This will happen in the regulations. No overtime, please.
Winner of the game, I would like to go with Pou [Poulin] or Fillier, but I think Fillier is going to score one of the first. Oh, there are so many options, it’s really hard. Let’s go with Clarkie [Emily Clark]. She played in the third line, but I think it will be an effort goal, and we will need those effort goals where it’s just dirty around the net.
Little: I will leave with Canada. The shots are going to be lopsided, but Ann Renee Desbiens is going to be huge and Sarah Nurse is going to score the winner. It will be 4-2 with an empty net. And yes, a 100% bias in this prediction [laughs].