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United States women’s players shak hands with Canada following the game in an exhibition hockey game at Xcel Energy Center. USA defeated Canada 3-2 in a shootout. (Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports)
United States women’s players shak hands with Canada following the game in an exhibition hockey game at Xcel Energy Center. USA defeated Canada 3-2 in a shootout. (Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports)

Hockey

Canadian women will have top players available for final exhibition against U.S. Add to ...

Kevin Dineen may be new to the experience of coaching Canada’s women’s Olympic hockey team, but he is completely familiar with the process – and how the concept of centralization works. The team hunkers down in Calgary for six months to prepare for a single, climactic international tournament.

Thirty years ago, that was Dineen himself, on the ice, earning a place on Canada’s men’s team for the 1984 Olympics at Sarajevo. Getting a team ready for the Olympic competition is different than the night-in, night-out grind of NHL competition. If you make a coaching change in the NHL, the goal is to win the next night. If you make a coaching change on the Olympic team, it doesn’t change the fundamental goal, or the time frame.

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Yes, you want to win every night, but the success or failure of the enterprise will only be judged with one result – how they fare in the Feb. 20 gold-medal game, assuming they and the United States, the two overwhelming favourites – happen to make it that far. Everything else is just a dress rehearsal, including Monday’s date between the Canadian and American women, who will play each other for the seventh and final time this year in preliminary competition.

The series is tied 3-3, with Canada winning the first three meetings this season, the United States winning the next three, including Saturday’s 3-2 shootout victory in Minnesota, which featured the return to Canada’s lineup of both Hayley Wickenheiser and Marie-Philip Poulin, who have missed large chunks of the season because of injuries. As Dineen noted, he became “a lot better” coach when he has those two players at his disposal.

“Those are world-class players,” Dineen said. “You put those kinds of players in your lineup and you’re a better hockey team. I understand there is some building going on and that this is a process, but we’re also competitive, and we want to win.”

Still, there’s a difference between wanting to win and needing to win.

In 2002, Canada lost all eight preliminary games to the United States, but won when it mattered – in the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City. Afterward, when it was over, the team’s slogan became, ‘oh and eight and then we celebrate.’ Nor was any of their preliminary any consolation to the Americans after they’d lost on their own turf and failed to defend the gold-medal they won unexpectedly in 1998 at Nagano.

Wickenheiser was part of both of those Canadian teams and says it’s a myth that the women’s squad doesn’t have enough time to prepare for the 2014 Games in Sochi, even after the unexpected coaching change earlier this month, when Dineen stepped in to replace Dan Church, who resigned for personal reasons.

“What we have [in Dineen] is, we have someone who’s competed in an Olympics, who’s played international hockey, who’s coached in the NHL and he’s fresh off coaching behind the bench,” Wickenheiser said. “I think all the players are excited for the new injection of energy – and we still have 45 days, which is a long time because it’s not as if we have to reinvent the wheel.

“All the groundwork has been laid. You’re maybe tweaking systems, but you’re not implementing anything new. You’re just having a fresh voice behind the bench is really what it comes down to. I think we’re in a great spot that way. I don’t see it that way at all – that we don’t have enough time to get ready.”

Assistant coach Danielle Goyette was a player on the 2002 team and thus understands how redemptive the Olympics can be as a one-shot event, even to a team that a tough go of it in the preliminaries:

“It’s funny to say, because you want to win all the games, but on the road to the Olympics, I think it’s important to lose some games too,” Goyette said. “Not that you’re going to lose them on purpose, but if it happens, you feel as coaches that you can push the players harder because we know we’re not perfect. Sometimes, when you win too often, you feel ‘it’s good, everything’s good, we can relax.’

“We’re on our heels right now. We have to make sure we’re moving forward. We know one or two players won’t make a difference. We have to jell together and make it happen as a team. We know we played two really good games against the U.S. this year because we played together as a team. Now we have to go back and say, ‘hey, we need everybody in this room to be successful’ and I feel that’s what we’re learning now.”

Dineen, meanwhile, is not a fan of the brawls that have occurred twice in the exhibition games between the U.S. and Canadian women, and says he expects that’s not going to happen again. Forward Caroline Ouellette also thinks things may settle down now, because Canada is down to its 21-player roster and so the mindset has shifted for some – from making the team to getting ready to play in Sochi.

Still, according to Ouellette, “I think it’s well-known that we don’t like one another. They have the same passion for their country as we do for ours and they want the same prize as us – Olympic gold. A few bad plays turned into brawls in a couple of games. I’m not the type of player that loves violence. I don’t approve of it. But if there’s one thing I was proud of in our last game, despite the losses, our five players involved themselves in that fight. I think we did pretty well for ourselves. I don’t think that’s the type of hockey we want to show Canadians or the world or young girls who start playing the game, but it sure increases our popularity on social media and it brings awareness to the sport.

“But I want us to be remembered for the passion with which we play the game and not the fighting. Hopefully, we can stay out of the penalty box and play hockey in the upcoming games, but if it happens again, I know we’ll be ready for it.”

 

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