Natalie Spooner will play for Canada in a ninth women's world hockey championship, but this one feels different to her.
Less than four months after giving birth to son Rory, the 32-year-old forward from Toronto wasn't sure she'd be chosen to wear the Maple Leaf in nearby Brampton.
"The whole journey that I had been through and not really knowing if I was going to be able to make it back in time, not knowing if what I had done was enough … it was one of those times I had no clue which way it was going to go," Spooner told The Canadian Press.
Canada takes on Finland in a pre-tournament game Saturday at the Gale Centre in Niagara Falls, Ont.
After two straight world titles, Canada's women open their bid for a three-peat April 5 against Switzerland in Brampton's CAA Centre.
Spooner returns to the lineup for the first time since helping Canada beat the United States for gold in the 2022 Beijing Olympics, and will play her first international games since she and husband Adam Redmond welcomed Rory on Dec. 6.
"Being able to have Rory there will be super-special," Spooner said.
"He probably won't really remember, but he'll get to watch me play, which I think will be super cool.
"This world championship is going to look a little different for me. I'm going to have a few things to balance. It's awesome it will be so close to home and to have that support system around to help me."
A woman returning to the Canadian team after having children has precedence.
Defender Meaghan Mikkelson did it after her son was born in 2015 and her daughter was born in 2019.
Defender Becky Kellar played for Canada in the 2005 and 2008 world championships after the birth of a son each time.
But Spooner accelerated the return timeline. She was still skating 36 weeks into her pregnancy.
"I really only took about eight weeks off," she explained. "I feel pretty good on the ice.
"I feel some pubic bone pain, so it's really just been managing my pubic bone. I don't feel like I'm very behind at all."
Spooner's first hockey game after Rory's arrival was Feb. 24 in a Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA) event in Tampa, Fla.
She appeared in six PWHPA games in total, with head coach Troy Ryan going to Washington, D.C., to watch her and other Canadian players in early March.
"What we do is our medical staff speak directly with her, directly with her doctor and collaborate on whether she'll continue to gain speed and strength in a safe way," Ryan said. "All the information given to me was huge strides on a weekly basis.
"It's a true testament to the work. Part of it is the work she did post-pregnancy, part of it is the work she did during pregnancy, but a big part of this is all that work she's done prior to.
"We feel she she's someone who can give us a world championship. It's nice when it comes with a good story with it."
Spooner's career 66 goals and 55 assists in 147 games ranks her ninth all-time in points for Canada.
She's won Olympic gold twice (2014, 2022) and two world championship gold (2012, 2021).
Her game has morphed from human bowling ball in the 2014 Olympic Games to a dominating net-front presence in the offensive zone both on the power play and five-on-five.
Spooner uses her five-foot-10 frame to absorb and dish out punishment in the slot, and get her stick on shots for redirections.
"You're optimistic she can step into that role," Ryan said. "We'll also have to be relatively smart with managing some load early on to see where she's at, at this pace.
"The intention is to give her the opportunities she'd had in the past. Not just for Spooner's situation, but for every scenario we can possibly think about, we try to have backup plans."
Spooner has twice delved into reality TV by tackling international travel racing with Mikkelson on "The Amazing Race" and figure skating in "Battle of the Blades."
Spooner leaned on Mikkelson's advice on how to combine motherhood and international hockey.
"I talked to her quite a lot," Spooner said. "Right after his birth, I thought 'oh my goodness, there is no way this is going to be possible.' Knowing she had done it and come back, it made me realize I could do it.
"I know she thought it would be too quick to come back, but at the same time, I had a lot of great people around me to help me. I was kind of just going to go for it."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press