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Haley Irwin a surprise selection to Canadian women's hockey team

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Haley Irwin was shopping for clothes to wear to the Frozen Four women's hockey tournament when her cellphone rang and she saw it was a Calgary area code.

The 20-year-old from Thunder Bay, Ont., found a quiet spot in Duluth's Miller Hill Mall to answer her phone. When she hung up, Irwin sat down on a bench and tears filled her eyes.

Although Irwin had been sworn to secrecy as to the contents of that call, her face gave it away when she re-joined her University of Minnesota-Duluth teammates.

"One teammate I was with, she could just kind of tell 'You got the call didn't you?"' Irwin said. "I had a bit of a moment and it was good to have someone there to celebrate that with."

Irwin found out she'd been named to the Canadian women's hockey team for the world championship April 4-12 in Hameenlinna, Finland, and was also invited to try out for the 2010 Olympic team later this year.

She's one of 21 players attempting to reclaim the world title Canada lost to the U.S. last year in Harbin, China. She'll also move to Calgary in August and try to secure a spot on the Olympic team for the Games in Vancouver next February.

The five-foot-seven, 172-pound forward was a dark-horse selection because she's never played for Canada at a world championship or in the annual Four Nations Cup. She's been a member of the national under-22 team for two years, but her experience with the national team is limited to one camp last September.

"When the phone call came, I was definitely surprised," Irwin said. "Any time you get named to the senior Canadian team with all the girls involved and how many girls there are playing, it was a little bit of a surprise to get that call.

"I know throughout the year they watched a lot of our college games. I thought if I did my thing throughout the year and did what I could, I thought they'd give me a look."

Canadian head coach Melody Davidson is looking for a return to a blue-collar work ethic. She says Irwin fits that description and plays like "a young Cherie Piper."

"She plays with that edge, knows the game, great vision, does whatever it takes," Davidson said. "She'll block a shot or eat the puck. She's got nice hands in tight.

"She's a bit of a surprise to everybody, but she's a good young up and comer."

Irwin is surrounded by people who know the national team intimately. Minnesota-Duluth head coach Shannon Miller coached the Olympic team in 1998.

Bulldogs assistant coach Caroline Ouellette is a Canadian team veteran. Irwin may end up playing alongside Ouellette in Finland and perhaps in Vancouver.

Irwin finds that prospect both exciting and strange.

"Honestly, it will be a little bit," she admitted. "Actually being teammate, I'll probably be a little bit nervous too."

The sophomore is second in Bulldogs scoring with 22 goals and 22 assists in 38 games this season. Irwin won an NCAA championship with Minnesota-Duluth last year and the Bulldogs qualified again for the Frozen Four starting Friday, when her team opens against No.-1 ranked Wisconsin.

Irwin had two goals and seven assists in seven games for Canada's under-22 team in its series against the U.S. last August and at the MLS Cup in Germany in January.

What got the attention of Davidson, however, was the strides Irwin has made when the opposition has the puck.

"So many forwards within the Canadian program, everyone can play the puck, so I had to work on my defensive game," Irwin said. "I just couldn't be a one-way player.

"Having a chance to work with Caroline Ouellette on that, that's one part of my game that has really developed."

Added Ouellette: "It's amazing how she's grown her game defensively the last two years. I think she's a great addition to our roster. She's become a more complete player and that won her a spot definitely."

Irwin started playing hockey at the age of four in Terrace Bay, Ont., because her brother Brent played. After moving to Thunder Bay, she played boys hockey up until the age of 16.

When she was 10, she watched the Canadian women play in the Olympics for the first time and it was a defining moment in her hockey aspirations.

"It's one of those things where it's almost like you're watching a movie on TV," Irwin recalled. "I was young and I didn't even know if those people were real. Eventually it became my goal."

Irwin is trying to get her head around the fact that two days after the Frozen Four concludes she'll be on a plane to Finland. Then she'll set her sights on wearing the Maple Leaf for the host country in Vancouver.

"I don't know if that part has sunk in quite yet because we have worlds coming up and that's such an honour," Irwin said. "It gives me butterflies and to think about Vancouver, that's just . . . . it gives me butterflies as well.

"It's something I've dreamed about and now I have a chance to make it a reality."

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