The women’s world hockey championship starts Tuesday in Ottawa and St. Albert’s Meaghan Mikkelson will once again be part of Team Canada’s roster.
It’s the 28-year-old’s sixth year in the Team Canada program and fifth trip to worlds.
With her years of experience playing at the international level, Mikkelson is well aware of the expectations for Canadian hockey teams.
“Obviously there’s pressure every time you put on the Team Canada jersey,” she says. “Every time we play, we’re expected to win. We expect that from ourselves, and I think the rest of Canada kind of expects that as well.”
This year’s worlds is more than a contest between countries. It’s also part of the selection process for the Olympic team that will represent Canada in Sochi, Russia next year, but Mikkelson stressed that the players are just focusing on winning the championship.
“I don’t think we see it so much as pressure, it’s more a desire to win and a desire to be successful and as players we all need to play our best for us to be successful as a team,” she says. “So I think focusing on that rather than focusing on it being an evaluation process is what’s really important and what’s going to help the team be successful in the end.”
Winning worlds last year in Burlington, Vt. ended a three-year gold medal drought for the Canadians. From 2009 through 2011, they walked away with a trio of silver medals while their U.S. rivals claimed gold.
Mikkelson admitted the 2012 gold medal didn’t come easy.
“It was a learning experience for our team I think, after we lost 9-2 in the first round-robin game against the Americans, and then the way we turned everything around and came together as a team and pulled off the win in the end,” she says. “I think we thought in that first game, we’d embarrassed ourselves and we’d embarrassed our country, and so to come out with a gold medal is amazing.”
The highlight of Mikkleson’s hockey career so far is another kind of gold medal, one that she had dreamed of earning since she was a young girl playing minor hockey in St. Albert.
“Hands down it’s winning the Olympic gold in Vancouver. I don’t know if anything will top that, if anything can top that, just because it was an Olympics in our own country and we won in front of so many people, all of our friends and family,” she says. “It was something that we wanted so bad and we worked so hard for the entire centralization year as a team. It was amazing.”
Mikkelson was 13 when she first saw a female Olympic hockey team and is amazed at how the sport has grown. She began playing hockey before the advent of girl’s hockey and was the first girl in St. Albert to play on a boys’ team. Mikkelson took up the sport when her brother, Brendan, began playing. Brendan is currently with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization and plays on the farm team in Syracuse, N.Y. Their father Bill played four seasons in the NHL.
“There was no girls hockey in St. Albert when I was that age and now there are so many teams everywhere,” Mikkelson says. “There are young girls now that are buying sweatshirts or jerseys from teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and that’s a dream for them. They want to play in the CWHL because it’s sort of the women’s equivalent of the NHL. I definitely didn’t have that so it’s really amazing to see and it’s astonishing. I think it just speaks to the amount of people that are involved in the women’s game and are so passionate about growing it.”
Mikkelson just wrapped her second season with Team Alberta, one of five teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The Alberta squad joined the league in the 2011/2012 season and finished at the bottom of the standings this year.
“Last year half the players were in Edmonton, half were in Calgary and we had split practices. We were driving back and forth all the time. It was tough trying to work on systems when you only have seven or eight skaters on the ice and sometimes you have a goalie, sometimes, you don’t. It was really a challenge,” said the league’s top scoring defenceman in her first year with Team Alberta.
Mikkelson and her husband live in Calgary where the team is now based.
“We’re at the new WinSport arenas at Canadian Olympic Park. It’s one of the best facilities in Canada. Training there has been an amazing year, for sure.”
After graduating from high school, Mikkelson went to the University of Wisconsin where she had a stellar career. As a senior she won her second NCAA championship and was named to the tournament all-star team and was a first team All-American. The Western Collegiate Hockey Association defensive player of the year lead all NCAA defencemen in scoring and was a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, given to the NCAA’s top women’s hockey player.
But as Mikkelson discovered, returning to Canada after finishing a university hockey career in the U.S. can be difficult.
“When you play in the NCAA you’re treated amazingly. You practise every day, you’re in top of the line facilities and you’re playing games every weekend. And after university you come home and it’s like, ‘Well where do I play now?’ ” says Mikkelson.
After returning from university, Mikkelson sought out opportunities to train and started practising with the Sherwood Park Crusaders in the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
“I knew the head coach and he was nice enough to let me go out and practise with them because I wasn’t really getting in the level of practising that I needed when my team was only practising once or twice a week. To stay at the top and train as hard as you can, you definitely need help from people around you and you need a good support system so I’ve been very lucky to have that as well.”
Now, with the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Mikkelson has found a place to continue her hockey career.
“There needs to be somewhere for the top level female hockey players, not just in Canada but all over the world, somewhere for us to play and to train. The CWHL has really allowed me to do that,” said one of the inaugural 24 inductees into the City of St. Albert’s Skating Wall of Fame.