Poised blue-liner making most of opportunity with Team Canada

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Avery Pickering has a checklist that crosses her mind daily: play hockey on the world stage, excel at a Division 1 school, then make the Canadian women’s Olympic team.

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Avery Pickering has a checklist that crosses her mind daily: play hockey on the world stage, excel at a Division 1 school, then make the Canadian women’s Olympic team.

This week, she’s crossing one item off that ambitious docket.

Pickering, a product of St. Adolphe, is lacing up her skates with Team Canada at the 2023 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship in Östersund, Sweden. The 16-year-old blue-liner is the only Manitoba-born player on a squad that is searching for its second consecutive world crown, hoping to do so for the first time since three-peating in 2012-14.

Amy Pickering is playing with Team Canada at the 2023 IIHF U18 Women’s World Championship in Östersund, Sweden. (IIHF)

“I don’t even know if I can explain how much this means to me,” Pickering, the 5-9 right shot, told the Free Press Monday. “It’s just something that — I’ve been dreaming of this for so long. I literally dreamed every night of my life, playing with the maple leaf on my chest, getting to go out in international competition, play with the best of the best… I’ve been working my whole life toward this.

“It’s been an incredible experience to get to go out and live that dream.”

Pickering and Team Canada are off to a strong start, blanking Team Finland 8-0 in the tournament opener Sunday before besting the Swedes 4-2 Monday. The surging Canadians will cap off group play Wednesday (1 p.m. puck drop) against USA, to decide who wins Group A. Group B consists of Czechia, Japan, Slovakia and Switzerland.

The quarterfinals will be played Thursday, and the semifinals Saturday, before the medal games wrap up the tournament on Sunday.

Pickering, who owns a plus-four rating through two contests, said the feeling of the unknown had caused some jitters ahead of her debut on the world stage, but that the staff spoke with the team to put their concerns at ease.

“Until you actually get into it, you don’t actually know how you’re going to deal with it. It’s a lot of an unknown, preparing for everything, but in the end, you just have to face it,” Pickering said.

“You know what, I actually felt pretty good with it. These games are just so much fun in a lot of ways, they’re so intense and as a team, we play such a hard, fast game and we’re really there to support each other on the ice. So that transition has been made as smooth as possible. I just get to go out and play hockey.”

Pickering also had the luxury of texting her oldest brother, Owen, who played for Team Canada’s U18 men’s squad in the 2021 IIHF world junior championship.

With Avery’s top concern being performing when the cameras came on, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2021 first-round pick (21st overall) offered his sister some advice on playing when the spotlight is on.

“He gave me his advice. It was really just, ‘You go out there and you do what you do. In the end, it’s hockey.’ And I was grateful for that because it was a little bit of a reminder, but I also found that out pretty quickly myself,” she said.

“He’s really good for that. And in the end, it was a lot of, ‘Come out here and be me and then soak up every moment,’ because, as I can already tell you, it’s going by really, really fast.”

Team Canada head coach Courtney Birchard-Kessel is rolling seven defencemen throughout the tournament, pairing Pickering, one of the youngest players on the team, with Alberta’s Maya Serdachny (2005-born) and British Columbia’s Gracie Graham (2006-born). The bench boss said Avery’s professional approach to the game has been evident from day one.

“I think her poise with the puck is phenomenal, especially at her age, and her first pass on the breakout is tremendous,” said Birchard-Kessel, a three-time member of Team Canada during her playing days.

“I think her confidence, you can see it. And that’s what great leaders bring into these big world stage tournaments, is if you can come with some confidence, it’s obviously going to help you play well. So at such a young age, I think it’s really neat to see these younger players, especially Avery, showing that confidence.”

Support for Avery has come out in droves at Balmoral Hall School, where she captains the hockey team and has 12 points (three goals, nine assists) in 11 games this season.

The Winnipeg-based all-girls private school has sent a player to Team Canada’s tryout almost every year of the team’s 20-year existence. Avery is the first to make the roster since goaltender Corinne Schroeder in 2017.

“It’s huge,” said Sarah Zacharias, head coach and director of hockey for the Balmoral Blazers. “It’s the dream of a lifetime and we have a lot of players on this team whose aspirations are to one day make Team Canada. To have our captain and three-year vet get to show them how it’s done, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment.

“Our group of girls are really excited for Avery and I know a lot of the younger ones are watching her going, ‘I want that to be me,’ and have learned a lot from Avery and her work ethic and demeanour and attitude and what it takes to make it to that level.”

Balmoral Hall packed its 100-seat theatre on Monday, where teammates, students and faculty alike cheered on their captain. Zacharias said the school has been “excited to watch her achieve this dream.”

“Avery is absolutely the most deserving player for this type of experience and accolade,” she said. “She has earned this all on her own merit… it just speaks to the work ethic and the diligence from the entire Pickering family, not just in hockey but in all regards.”

Avery will attend Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., next year, where she’ll begin to cross another item off her checklist. Until then, she’s made a pact with herself to make the most of the opportunity in front of her.

“I just really wanted to come out here and live in the moment as much as possible,” Avery said.

“Just do everything I can to help this team because I’ve been given this opportunity and I’m extremely grateful for it and extremely proud to get to say that I can play for Team Canada.”

jfreysam@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jfreysam

Joshua Frey-Sam

Joshua Frey-Sam
Reporter

Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.

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