Three goalies already know they’ll represent Canada in women’s hockey at the 2014 Winter Olympics, which is a certainty their teammates currently don’t possess.
Each country will have three goaltenders on their 21-player rosters at the Olympic women’s hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia, next February.
So when Canadian head coach Dan Church invited Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados and Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., to try out for the Canadian team, it effectively punched their ticket to Sochi.
The three women insist that doesn’t take pressure off their shoulders. The stakes are different, but no less high in their minds.
Nine defencemen are chasing six jobs and 15 forwards are vying for the dozen openings on the Olympic roster. Church intends to name his Olympic team by the end of December.
The skaters chosen will dress for every game in Sochi. The goaltenders don’t have that luxury and are thus competing for Olympic starts.
“People say ‘you guys are lucky you are going’ but there’s only going to be one of us playing in that gold-medal game,” Lacasse says. “All three of us, that’s our goal, to be the starting goalie in the gold-medal game.”
Canada will meet reigning world champion U.S. in a preliminary-round game Feb. 12 in Sochi. Finland and Switzerland are also in Canada’s pool. The Canadians and Americans are expected to meet again for gold Feb. 20.
If Labonte, Szabados and Lacasse haven’t established a pecking order by the end of December, their internal competition could continue after the team is named.
“It will depend on where we’re at and how they’re playing,” Church says. “There may be competition between all three of them still going into January. It may be two of them have moved ahead of the other.”
The majority of players trying out for Canada’s Olympic team are from outside of Alberta and have relocated to Calgary for the next six months. They’re skating and training daily and are playing intra-squad games this week.
The women will play between 50 and 60 games before departing for Sochi.
Included in that schedule are games against Alberta midget triple-A men’s teams, as well as eight games against the U.S. women — six exhibition games and two at the Four Nations Cup in November.
In a non-Olympic year, the women’s world championships and the annual Four Nations Cup provide less than 10 international starts in total for Canada’s three goalies.
So Labonte, Szabados and Lacasse will have opportunities this winter they don’t normally get to play themselves up, or down, the national team’s depth chart.
The head coach says there isn’t an incumbent No. 1 for the Olympic Games.
“Going into the year, it’s wide open,” Church said. “In my mind, all three are on equal footing right now.”
Szabados played herself from third string behind Labonte and Kim St. Pierre to Canada’s starter during the last centralized season of 2009-10.
She made 28 saves in a 2-0 shutout of the Americans in the gold-medal final in Vancouver.
The 27-year-old has been Canada’s starter in all three world championship finals since then, but she doesn’t see the starting job as hers to defend.
“Obviously that’s my goal this year, to work hard to become that number one,” Szabados says. “I think we’ll all get a fair shot at it this year.
“We play 50-plus games this year. It gives us a lot of chances to kind of showcase ourselves and prove to ourselves and our teammates that we can be the number one goalie.”
Labonte backstopped Canada to Olympic gold in the final of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. She made seven saves in a 4-1 win over Sweden.
She badly sprained her ankle playing basketball the day before the women’s 2009-10 centralized season kicked off. Unable to play for weeks, Labonte lost ground to St. Pierre, who retired post-2010, and Szabados.
Of the five games in Vancouver, Labonte played one period of a 13-1 thumping of the Swedes.
“I didn’t have enough time to come back for the Olympics,” the 30-year-old recalls. “I was looking forward to hopefully being the starter at the Olympics. I don’t want to say I took it for granted, but I feel like that’s a lesson I learned through that injury.
“I feel like I really give it my all, one day at a time, because you never know what can happen.”
Lacasse, 24, has the least international experience of the three. She’s inspired by Szabados’s trajectory prior to 2010.
“We’re all going to get a similar amount of games this year and similar opportunities. It’s just what you make of those,” Lacasse says. “That gets me more excited than nervous.”
Lacasse knows several of the U.S. shooters well because she was their teammate on the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Boston Blades last season.
Szabados has spent the vast majority of her hockey career playing with and against men in both the Alberta Junior A Hockey League and then the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference with NAIT and Grant MacEwen. That’s given her quickness and agility in net, which is an asset against the U.S. women.
Labonte plays an efficient butterfly style, dropping to her knees and spreading her pads to take away the bottom of the net while positioning her body to cut off angles. Lacasse’s style is more instinctual and less technical than Labonte’s.
“I think all three of us are competitive,” Labonte says. “We’re here to be the starter and to win and that’s what makes us as a group really good. We like to compete and battle.”