For the first time in 10 years, the Canadian women’s hockey team is going into the Olympic season as the reigning world champion.
With their 3-2 win in overtime in August, Canada regained the title it had eluded since 2012 – breaking a six-year streak of American dominance in tournament competition.
Both teams are seriously resuming their Olympic preparation this week with two games in Allentown, Pennsylvania and Hartford, Connecticut. This will be the first of many meetings until the end of December and an important test on the way to Beijing. Although the series may officially be an exhibition, these games are high-stakes games with players competing for their spots and competing for gold in 2022.
“This year we want to play best-on-best, so the series against the US is pretty important and an integral part of our process,” said Canadian striker Sarah Nurse. “The US is our biggest rival, so if we have the opportunity to play against them and put our preparation and training into practice, it will be super important when we get to the Olympics.”
CLOCK | Examine the impact of the Canadian women’s hockey team on the ice:
Both Canadian and American players spend the months leading up to the Games in an extensive training camp known as centralization (or residence south of the border).
For the remainder of the calendar year, aspiring Olympians from each country will train together and participate in a number of exhibitions in hopes of cracking their team’s final 23-player roster.
The IIHF only allowed 25 athletes per country in this event, so the exhibition series also offers greater flexibility in the roster to accommodate all available Canadian players.
“We set out to win two gold medals this year and we have already won one at the World Cup,” said Nurse. “Now that we have our entire group back together, we are preparing again and are very confident.”
For their part, the Americans took a break after the tournament before regrouping in Minnesota in early October. In addition to regular training and practice, they have played against boys’ teams and played a three-game series against an all-star squad from the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association.
“Obviously the worlds weren’t going the way we wanted them to,” said US defender Lee Stecklein. “So [we’re] really figuring out what we can work on right away to improve for the games to come and then in the long run figuring out what our team needs to do and how we need to come together to find a way to be ready for the Olympics . “
Although everyone has to earn their place, this series will be a particularly valuable showcase for the young players who have not competed in world championships.
Forwards Jessie Eldridge and Julia Gosling sat out for Canada, and neither has a long international rÃ©sumÃ© to fall back on. Rookie net keeper Kristen Campbell has already secured her spot in Beijing but she has yet to take care of the goal for the senior team. American defense attorney Anna Wilgren is in a similar situation as she never prepared for her country.
Canada’s relatively inexperienced defense did admirably in August, but it wasn’t heavily tested either. That was due to a strong possession game in Calgary that the team will maintain.
Defense wins championships
But if their opponents manage to maintain the offensive pressure, the Canadians’ reaction will take center stage.
“We didn’t really have to play much in our own end of the ice [at worlds]”It’s definitely something that our coaches have spurred us on and wanted to work on,” said Nurse. “Ultimately, you win championships in defense, so we want to be great at our own end of the ice.”
But as much as these games are an essential tool in pre-Olympic evaluation, just as important is their importance in a classic, heated rivalry.
“They are a great preparation for the Olympic Games,” said Stecklein. “But at the end of the day it’s still a fight when you’re on the ice with Canada and it still feels like – and is – the most important game of the year at this point.”