Written by: Matt Johnson for Sask Sport
After last serving as teammates in 2019 when the Wisconsin Badgers hoisted the NCAA National Championship, Emily Clark and Sophie Shirley shared the ice together as teammates for the first time in more than four years on Wednesday in Saskatoon.
On a night where female minor hockey teams from across the province lined the rows of seats in the arena, all eyes were on Clark and Shirley. As the final seconds ticked down, Canada head coach Troy Ryan had both Clark and Shirley on the ice together for the first time in the game. The pair of local products soaked in a 4-2 victory over the United States in Game 5 of the Rivalry Series. The two shared the ice again on Friday night in Regina, in a 3-0 win. Emily Clark scored Team Canada’s second goal of the game.
“It was a really cool moment for us,” said Shirley, who followed in the footsteps to Madison, Wisconsin of the older Clark and was a freshman when her role model completed her senior season.
Growing up, it was Clark who provided the foundation to the National Team and showed her that a route like this is possible through Saskatchewan. Both played U18 AAA hockey with the Saskatoon Stars, before moving west to attend the Okanagan Hockey Academy, which led to opportunities with Team Canada’s U18 team at respective U18 Women’s World Championships.
Now after each spending four years in Wisconsin with the Badgers, Wednesday provided a reunion in their hometown — a city neither Shirley or Clark had played a competitive game in since their time with the Stars.
“I’m really proud of her. It’s kind of like a proud big sister moment. I got to watch her grow up and be on this journey together, so it was a really special day for both of us,” Clark said following the game, when asked about her former Badgers teammate.
“Emily has been a huge role model for me,” said Shirley. “I think I’ve always kind of looked up to her and tried to emulate everything that she’s done and kind of followed in her footsteps. It was super cool to share that with her for the first time at this level.”
Clark, who admitted she found out Shirley would be joining her on Canada’s roster when scrolling through X last week, was thrilled to have a fellow Prairie product along for the homecoming.
“I’m thinking of [Kristin O’Neill, who was replaced in the lineup due to injury], but it’s great that another Saskatoon player got this chance. Sophie has been playing amazing in the PWHL this season and she just keeps getting better and better,” said Clark.
A two-time finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award, handed out to the top NCAA women’s hockey player, Shirley was selected by Boston 63rd overall by Boston in this fall’s PWHL Draft. She has three points in seven games this season for Boston, after scoring her first career PWHL goal this past week against Montreal.
“She’s such a special player with so much skill and speed. She’s still so young, so nothing but better things are coming for her,” said Clark.
The hope for Shirley is the call-up is a sign of what’s to come. She wrapped up her career at Wisconsin with a storybook ending, just like Clark did, by winning a National Championship in her senior season, before embarking on a pro career this fall.
All the time away from home made the night even more special, as with what she detailed as 15-20 family members in attendance, Shirley noted she was able to take it all in while taking laps in warmups.
“As soon as I got out there, I was super excited to be able to play with that atmosphere, especially when you’re home and having family here was amazing,” said Shirley. “I think for me, being a young girl and growing up in this area and being able to put myself in their shoes like I was at one point and now to be on the ice at this level is pretty cool.”
Clark reflected postgame on her own memories of attending Saskatoon Blades in the building and posted on Instagram earlier in the day with a nostalgic photo of her in a Saskatoon Flyers jersey — the team she noted she was last a part of when she last suited up at the SaskTel Centre.
The two-time Olympian and gold medallist in Beijing was slated to be a part of Canada’s roster when Saskatoon played host to the 4 Nations Cup but was forced to miss the tournament due to injury. She admitted following the game, that absence made Wednesday night all that sweeter.
“That [injury] probably was one of the hardest things I had to go through. I honestly didn’t think I’d get the chance [to play in Saskatoon again]. These series and different tournaments make their way across Canada, so I’m very lucky that I got the chance again and was healthy enough to play and be on the roster.”
The significance of the moment wasn’t lost on captain Marie Marie-Philip Poulin, who expressed her excitement to see both her longtime teammate in Clark and a fresh call-up in Shirley have a night like this in their hometown.
“It’s always special to travel across Canada, touching different communities and obviously, being here in Saskatoon in front of Clark and Shirley’s family — the whole crowd here was great,” said Poulin.