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Canadian women's hockey team experiences surge in East Coast talent

KAMLOOPS, B.C. — What was once a trickle of players from Atlantic Canada turned into a wave this year for the national women's hockey team.

Forwards Sarah Davis of Paradise, N.L., Jill Saulnier of Halifax and Blayre Turnbull of Stellarton, N.S., make up the largest East Coast contingent ever on a Canadian team at a world championship.

Davis, 23, and Saulnier, 24, were the first players from their respective provinces to wear the Maple Leaf at a world championship last year in Malmo, Sweden, where Canada took silver. Turnbull, 22, joined them this year on Canada's 23-player roster in Kamloops, B.C.

The trio know each other well. They were Team Atlantic teammates in the national under-18 women's championship in 2009. Davis and Saulnier were Atlantic teammates in 2007 and 2008 as well.

The players have been each other's inspiration and measuring sticks en route to Kamloops.

Davis has a street named after her in Paradise and that makes Saulnier and Turnbull giggle, but Sarah Davis Way reflects a genuine pride in a woman going in hockey where no Newfoundland woman has gone before.

"It's obviously a huge honour," Davis said. "It's just a little weird."

New Brunswick has been represented at various times over the years by Stacy Wilson, Kathy McCormack and Rebecca Fahey.

Prince Edward Island is on the cusp. Shannon MacAulay of Mount Hebert was an alternate captain on Canada's under-22 team that won the Nations Cup in Germany in January.

The combined number of registered females playing hockey in the four provinces in 2014-15 was equal to Alberta's 9,000 and far less than Ontario's 41,000.

The bigger the number, the more depth a province's high-performance program can boast. There are nine players from Ontario on the Canadian roster.

"Something that's humbling being from the Atlantic provinces is overcoming that doubt," Saulnier said. "The numbers (of women playing) are very small, so to have three of us here is the first time in history that's ever happened.

"It's very humbling for us to do it together, as well as push that doubt out of people's minds. It doesn't matter where you're from."

An important stepping stone for Davis, Saulnier and Turnbull has been the annual boys and girls Atlantic Challenge Cup which included a women's under-18 tournament since its inception in 1996. An under-16 women's tournament was added in 2003.

Another significant development was Hockey Canada making the national women's under-18 championship an annual event — with the exception of Canada Games years — starting in 2005.

"It starts at Atlantic Challenge Cup, being able to represent your province and from there, Team Atlantic is picked to represent the Atlantic region at nationals," Davis explained.

The national under-18 championship is a platform to be seen by college, university and Hockey Canada scouts.

"I would say in the past exposure has been a little bit of an issue for girls playing in the Atlantic provinces, but now that the game has grown so much, they're getting the opportunity to be exposed to scouts and university coaches and all those people too," Turnbull said.

The three women left home in their teens to continue their development: Davis to the Warner Hockey School in Alberta, Turnbull to Sidney Crosby's alma-mater Shattuck St. Mary's and Saulnier to prep schools in both the U.S. and Canada.

After graduation, Davis played for the University of Minnesota, Saulnier for Cornell and Turnbull for Wisconsin.

"They all made good choices and got great coaching where they were at and got the competition they needed not just to better themselves, but learn how to be that complete player within a team structure and be able to play with better players," Canadian head coach Laura Schuler said.

The three are now Calgary Inferno forwards in the Canadian Women's Hockey League. Davis is a two-way utility player, while right-winger Saulnier provides grit and speed. Turnbull scored a pair of goals for the Inferno to help them win this year's Clarkson Cup.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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