Gopher participating in Team Canada Festival

A Gophers senior will compete with 60 of Canada's top female hockey players in preparation for the upcoming 2004 IIHF World Women's Hockey Championships. Read about her career, and why a teammate is especially excited about this weekend's games in Calgary.

University of Minnesota women's hockey player La Toya Clarke is participating in Team Canada's Thanksgiving Festival Oct. 7-12, held in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Sixty of Canada's top female hockey players are in Dartmouth in preparation for the upcoming 2004 IIHF World Women's Hockey Championship.

The event is for evaluation purposes and represents a first step toward naming Canada's roster for the 2004 IIHF World Women's Hockey Championship, March 30-April 6, 2004 in Halifax, Canada. The 60 players attending the Thanksgiving Festival include 17 members of the 2002 Olympic Champions and 19 of the 20 players named to the 2003 World Championship Team.

Clarke has been a mainstay for the Gophers during her career. The 5-4 senior forward from Pickering, Ontario, may get overshadowed by U.S. Olympians Kristy Wendell and Natalie Darwitz, but as co-captain, Gophers players know that Clarke is an integral part of the teams success.

"We know in the end if we are going to reach our goal of winning a national title that La Toya will be a big part of that," said fellow co-captain and senior Kelsey Bills. "Like the rest of us she is putting all personal goals aside this year. I think she is ready to have one of her best years as a Gopher."

Clarke tallied 23 points in 32 games played last season with the Maroon and Gold. She missed three games with the Golden Gophers last year to play with Canada's Under-22 team in Germany, but returned from her trip and scored six points, three of which were during the WCHA Final Five. Clarke was named to the all-tournament team, leading the Gophers to the championship game. Clarke ranks eighth on Minnesota's career points list (118), sixth in goals (47) and ninth in assists (71).

"LaToya struggled with some nagging injuries last year and wasn't 100 percent," said coach Laura Halldorson. "Other players might get more publicity, but we know what she means to the team. She is healthy this season and ready to make a large contribution."

Homecoming For Bills: The Gophers will play an exhibition series with the Oval X-Treme in Calgary, Alberta, Friday and Saturday. While it might be another exhibition for most players, it's a homecoming for Bills, who hails from Carstairs, Alberta – just a short drive from Calgary.

It will be the first time Bills has played in front of her hometown fans as a Gopher, and is something she said will be worth the wait.

"It's so exciting," said Bills, who spent her high school career in Canada playing with the Carstairs Bruins boys' team. "The chance to come home and play in front of all the people that supported me growing up is like a dream come true."

With plenty of family and friends a short drive from the arena, a mini-reunion is in store for Bills.

"This is the first time a lot of my friends from back home will be able to see me play," said Bills. "Many people in the community were so supportive of me and so happy for me when I got my scholarship to Minnesota that I am really glad I can play in front of them at least once before it's all over."

Matt Krumrie covers Gophers hockey for GoldenSports.Net. He can be reached at gopherhockeyinsider@yahoo.com.

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