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Hockey trio on Team Canada

Houston one of Manitobans to crack under-18 national roster

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Balmoral Hall Blazers phenom Ryleigh Houston will be the youngest player on the Team Canada squad.

KEN GIGLIOTTI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Balmoral Hall Blazers phenom Ryleigh Houston will be the youngest player on the Team Canada squad. Photo Store

When the knock on the door came Sunday morning, Ryleigh Houston didn't know what to expect, so she just crossed her fingers and hoped for the best.

The best came. When coaches called her name, the 15-year-old Balmoral Hall Blazers phenom learned she'd achieved another part of her hockey dream: making Team Canada's women's under-18 squad.

"They have the entire coaching staff there, and you go into a room, and they straight-up tell you either congratulations or you didn't make it," she said of that moment. "I was just grateful, and really excited. There's so many different emotions."

Houston is one of three Manitoban teens to crack the final Team Canada roster, as they prepare to take on the rival Americans in a three-game series this week.

"I expect it to be probably the best three games of my life so far," she said. "It's going to be a real challenge, but I'm looking forward to it'

-- Winnipeg's

Ryleigh Houston

Joining her on the forward corps is St. Mary's Academy Flames prep-squad star Christian Higham, 16, a Cornell University commit for 2015-16. On defence, Hartney resident and Westman Wildcats force Melissa Hunt, 17, will patrol the blue-line.

The three were selected from 42 invitees to the Team Canada selection camp in Calgary, which kicked off earlier this month. It was Houston's first crack at making a national roster.

"It was just overall a great experience, I thought I was just coming here and try my best and see what happens," Houston said.

Of note: Houston, who doesn't turn 16 until September, is the youngest player on the roster, and one of only three 1998-born players to make the final cut.

Still, she's shown she has the right stuff: In the Blazers' U19 Junior Women's Hockey League, playing against mostly older skaters, Houston racked up 27 goals and 26 assists in 27 games last season. For that razzle-dazzle show, she was named the league's offensive player of the year.

Now, she'll face an intimidating new opponent. The U.S. and Canada will play three times between Aug. 21 and Aug. 24, and Houston knows the competition will be stiff.

"I expect it to be probably the best three games of my life so far," she said. "It's going to be a real challenge, but I'm looking forward to it."

This is just the latest in a whirlwind summer for Houston, who -- along with Hunt -- spent part of July in Finland at the IIHF Women's High Performance Camp.

Their role there was mostly to act as an ambassador for the women's game, Houston explained.

"It kind of showed how Canada and the U.S. can really be role models for the rest of the world," she said. "We have a great opportunity to develop the game around the world."

The flurry of hockey won't stop anytime soon.

After this Team Canada series, Houston will race back home to Manitoba for a provincial team camp, before jumping back in with the Blazers for their first tournament of the season.

"It's been kind of hard, but you know, you kind of have to cope with it," she said. "I just make sure that none of the aspects of my game slip, and always keep improving."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2014 C3

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