HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS: SAULNIER AND TURNBULL RETURN TO NOVA SCOTIA AFTER DECEMBER SERIES SWEEP
Dec. 23, 2016
DARTMOUTH – After a short but intense series against their most bitter rivals, a pair of Nova Scotia hockey heroes are home for a well-deserved holiday break.
Halifax’s Jill Saulnier and Stellarton’s Blayre Turnbull arrived back in the province this week after representing Canada in the inaugural December Series, a two-game series pitting the international women’s game’s two hockey powerhouses against one another.
PHOTO: Jill Saulnier (left) and Blayre Turnbull (right).
“It’s great to be back home,” the 23-year old Turnbull said on Wednesday. “It’s definitely a much needed break and it’s exciting to be home with all of my family.”
But the excitement that they experienced at the rink over the past week could be hard to top.
On Saturday, Turnbull and Saulnier hit the ice with Canada in the first game of the December Series, a match that was played at USA Hockey Arena in Plymouth, Mich.
It was the first time the pair had ever had the opportunity to wear the maple leaf with the senior women’s team on American soil.
“It was definitely a different environment,” Saulnier said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “They had a great crowd. It was lively in there and they had their chants going but it was important for us to stay focused and stick with the game plan and not let the environment have an impact on our game.”
No easy task. Just ask Turnbull who was called for slashing 9:53 into the opening frame.
“I was skating off to the box and the whole crowd was just booing me,” Turnbull laughed. “I haven’t been booed before – at least not by that many people – so that was definitely an experience.”
But as loud as that crowd was, Saulnier found a way to silence them. With her team trailing 3-1 at the midway point of the second period, Saulnier ripped a shot past American netminder Alex Rigsby’s glove, an unassisted tally, to cue the Canadian comeback.
“That felt pretty amazing,” Saulnier said. “Obviously, you want to contribute in any way you can to a win but having that second goal there against the Americans was something I hadn’t been a part of before so it was a pretty special feeling.”
PHOTO: Jill Saulnier of Halifax.
Canada would ultimately defeat the United States 5-3 to take Game 1 of the series. That set the stage for the series finale in Sarnia, Ont. on Monday night and this time, the game would be played on Canadian ice.
“Every time you play against that team, you don’t know which way it’s going to go," Saulnier said. "They have a very talented group and they’re very deep but we had a great team, too, and we meshed really well.”
And for good reason.
Most of the players on Team Canada have skated together for years at both the national level and in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL). For the past two seasons, Saulnier and Turnbull have played together with the CWHL’S Calgary Inferno where they helped their team win the franchise’s first ever Clarkson Cup last March.
The Nova Scotia duo played on a line together in both December Series games with Saskatoon’s Emily Clark completing the unit.
But their history runs deeper than that. Saulnier and Turnbull have played together, off and on, for more than a decade.
“We played together when we were ten years old and so to be able to live out [this] dream together was pretty neat,” the 24-year old Haligonian said.
“There was a little bit [of chemistry] still left from back when we played as kids and with Team Nova Scotia [at the Atlantic Challenge Cup], too,” Turnbull said. “So that was exciting to get to play together for the first time in a while.
“When we were kids, we definitely talked about playing with Team Canada but back then, it was just a far out dream and I never thought it would actually [become a] reality. Just to put on the jerseys together is one thing but to go on the ice and play together and skate together for the entire two games, it was definitely something special.”
Saulnier and Turnbull helped lead Team Canada to a 3-2 overtime win to seal the series sweep.
The pair weren’t the only Nova Scotians who enjoyed the victory. Spryfield’s Troy Ryan, who helped Turnbull and Saulnier train during the offseason this year, was an assistant coach with the team.
“It was definitely nice to have a familiar face on the bench,” said Turnbull, who first met Ryan when he was a coach with the Pictou County franchise in the Maritime Junior A Hockey League. “[Troy] brought a lot of experience and knowledge to the bench. He’s very calm and he says exactly what needs to be said so it was good to have him on the bench.”
While a win over a fierce rival like the United States always feels good, there was more on the line in this series than just bragging rights.
The December Series was an important tool in Hockey Canada’s evaluation process as the management group prepares to select the senior women’s team that will represent the country at the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship. Both players have experience at that level as the pair represented Canada in 2016 at the World Championship. Saulnier was also on the roster back in 2015.
But in 2017, it’s different. In 2017, the countdown is really on.
For more than two years, the Bluenosers have been battling to become regulars on the Canadian senior women’s roster. When they hit the ice with Canada at the 2014 4 Nations Cup in Kamloops, B.C., they became the first Nova Scotians to ever compete with the senior women’s squad.
But while Sidney Crosby, Al MacInnis and Fabian Joseph have all played with Team Canada at the Olympics, a Nova Scotian has never represented the country on the women’s game’s highest stage.
Saulnier and Turnbull would love to change that in Pyeongchang in 2018.
“That’s been the dream for as long as I can remember and now it’s getting closer and closer to the time that [Hockey Canada] is going to select the team so things are getting a bit more intense and a bit more stressful but at the same time it’s really exciting and I’m really fortunate to be part of this process,” Turnbull said. “So I’m hoping that by the time February of 2018 rolls around, I’ll be in South Korea.”
PHOTO: Stellarton's Blayre Turnbull.
Cracking that 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship roster would get both players one step closer to realizing that dream. Playing alongside players on the Inferno roster like Meaghan Mikkelson and Brianne Jenner also helps.
“Just being in Calgary and being surrounded by girls who have played at the national level and who have played in the Olympics before, it makes it seem a little bit more real,” Turnbull said. “But when you take a step back and look at the grand scheme of things, there is still a long way to go and a lot of work to be done before the Olympics actually start.
“It’s definitely closer than it was a few years ago but there is still a lot of work to be done.”
For both players, that means not taking a day off.
“I just have to prove day in and day out that I deserve to be there,” Turnbull said. “Just having that type of attitude in the gym and on the ice, every single practice and game. That’s what it’s going to take for me to hopefully crack that roster so that’s the attitude I have to have for the next year and a half.”
Saulnier will have another opportunity to prove she belongs on the Olympic team. Next week, she leaves for Europe where she will represent Canada on the national women’s development team at the Nations Cup in Germany and Austria. She’s played at the event before but this time she'll be a veteran on a very young roster.
“I spent four years at the Nations Cup before when I was [Under-22] so I’ve been there, I’ve been in that environment and I know the rinks pretty well so to be able to go back in a different role as one of the older players is pretty exciting,” Saulnier said. “I think having as many opportunities as you can to wear the maple leaf is huge, especially this year leading up [to the Olympics], so I’m really excited to have another chance to do that and be around some great people.”
The Nations Cup runs from January 4-7, 2017. That means Saulnier and Turnbull will likely reunite with the Inferno on the ice in Montreal against Les Canadiennes de Montreal on Saturday, January 14.
And, as always, the 2018 Olympics will be on both of their minds.
“Being able to share that experience with Jill, someone who I was lucky enough to grow up playing hockey with, would be really special and if we were lucky enough to make the Olympic team, I know that would certainly be something we’d never forget.”