The game might be tactically conservative, but the players won’t hold anything else back when the Canadian women’s hockey team meets the United States on Saturday.
The Canadian and American women square off in Burlington, Vt., in the first of up to eight meetings before the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, in February. A second exhibition game is scheduled for Oct. 17 in Boisbriand, Que.
Canada and the U.S. have met in the final of all 15 women’s world championships with the Canadians holding a 10-5 record, but the U.S. winning four of the last five world titles. Canada is the three-time defending Olympic champion.
Both teams are training full-time — Canada in Calgary and the U.S. in Bedford, Mass. — so Saturday’s game at the University of Vermont is the first chance for each country to see what the other has been up to.
“I don’t think either team will expose every part of their game and won’t be at 100 per cent in every part of their game, but every time you get to play them it’s a great opportunity to learn about your own team and what you need to do to get better,” Canadian head coach Dan Church said.
“I think any times these two teams get to play each other, I think emotion takes over and the passion for your national pride comes to the forefront and it becomes a battle. There’s a good amount of animosity between the players and ultra-competitiveness.”
The four other exhibition games between the two countries are scheduled for Dec. 12 in Calgary, Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., Dec. 28 in St. Paul, Minn., and Dec. 30 in Toronto.
Canada and the U.S. will also meet in the round robin and possibly again in the final at the annual Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., in November.
The two countries don’t often play each other more than four times in a non-Olympic season. Canadian forward Caroline Ouellette doesn’t expect multiple meetings this winter will dull the rivalry.
“When we face each other, we go really hard at one another,” the Montreal native said. “It’s going to be played very physical with a lot of passion. I really look forward to see where we are at this point in our preparation compared to them.”
Forward Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both of Canada’s goals in a 2-0 win over the U.S. in the 2010 Olympic final, is out for another two to four weeks with a sprained ankle she suffered in September.
Forward Megan Agosta-Marciano will sit out Saturday’s game with what Church calls a lower-body injury, but he thought she may be ready to play in Boisbriand.
Multiple games against the Americans means all three Canadian goalies will get their chances to face them.
Since countries are allowed to take three goalies to the Winter Games, Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados, Charline Labonte of Boisbriand and Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., already know they’re on the Canadian team.
Only two goalies can dress for the games in Sochi so they’re vying for coveted starts at the Olympics.
The format of the Olympic women’s hockey tournament has been altered. Canada and the U.S. will face each other in the preliminary round before a possible rematch for gold Feb. 20.
The Gutterson Fieldhouse at the University of Vermont is the site of some of Canada’s highest highs and lowest lows.
After a demoralizing, worst-ever 9-2 loss to the Americans to open the 2012 world championship there, Ouellette scored the overtime winner for Canada in a 5-4 victory in the final.
“That rink became special of how we were able to turn that tournament around and win that final game,” she said.
“A lot of players would say that’s one of the most exciting games they’ve been part of and I think it taught us a lot about ourselves, about our character, losing so badly in the first game and being up in the final, the U.S. coming back and taking the lead and for us not giving up.”
The Americans defeated Canada 3-2 in Ottawa this year to reclaim the world title.
Canada is currently carrying 27 players and the U.S. 25. Both countries will choose a dozen forwards, six defenceman and three goalies for their respective Olympic teams.
Church is expected to announce the women’s squad in late December. USA Hockey has scheduled the announcement of their men’s and women’s Olympic teams for Jan. 1.
In the meantime, the Canadian women have embarked on a full schedule of games against male opponents in the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
The midget triple-A players are between 15 and 18 years of age and games against the Canadian women don’t include body-checking.
Those games were crucial to Canada’s preparation at the 2002, 2006 and 2010 Winter Games because they provided a level of competition similar to facing the U.S. women.
“The great thing about playing the midget boys teams is we’re seeing a lot of different situations — being down a goal with a minute or two left in the game or being down two goals going into the third period and having to battle from behind — just all the different things you get to see throughout a season and it’s a huge benefit for us to play those teams,” Church said.
The American women have also scheduled games against boys’ prep school teams.
“Not only the U.S. and Canada are doing that, I think some of the European countries are starting to do that too,” Ouellette said. “It makes absolute sense.
“We are the best women in our sport in our country. We have to match up against the boys to get better and to find those really great games where it’s going to be a battle each night and you can’t take a shift off.”
Canada’s record against AMHL teams is 7-3. Rebecca Johnston of Sudbury, Ont., leads Canada in scoring with five goals and eight assists.
“Rebecca has always had the skill set to be a game-breaker, game-changer,” Church said. “She’s really maturing in her game right now.
“Regardless of what line we put her with or who her linemates are, on any given night, she’s bringing a great intensity offensively and defensively. She’s seeing the game really well right now.”
The Canadian women train out of the Markin MacPhail Centre at Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park, but they won’t be there a lot for the next month.
After their two road games against the U.S. women, their AMHL schedule takes Canada through Leduc, Edmonton, Fort Saskatchewan, Grande Prairie, Lloydminster and St. Albert.
“It allows us to get closer as a team and form those bonds and friendships that are making us a better team,” Ouellette said.