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Team Canada women's hockey coach Dan Church speaks to reporters during an off day at the IIHF Women's World Hockey Championships in Ottawa on Thursday April 4, 2013. Church is stepping down from his position as Canada's women's hockey coach for personal reasons. (The Canadian Press)

Team Canada women's hockey coach Dan Church speaks to reporters during an off day at the IIHF Women's World Hockey Championships in Ottawa on Thursday April 4, 2013. Church is stepping down from his position as Canada's women's hockey coach for personal reasons.

(The Canadian Press)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

'Heartbroken' women's hockey coach resigns weeks before Olympics Add to ...

In a stunning and unexpected turn of events, Canada’s national women’s hockey team is looking for a new head coach – with only two months to go until the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Dan Church stepped down Thursday, citing personal reasons.

Scott Smith, Hockey Canada chief operating officer, made the announcement jointly with Melody Davidson, general manager of female national teams, at a press conference in Calgary.

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Until a replacement is named, assistant coaches Danielle Goyette and Lisa Haley were named interim co-coaches and will run the team together. Davidson is a former head coach of the national women’s team, but is not a candidate to replace Church.

Canada was scheduled to play the United States in an exhibition game at the WinSport Arena in Calgary on Thursday night, but Church was on his way home to Toronto to see his wife, Regan, “for the first time in a long time.”

Ultimately, Church plans to return to coaching at York University in Toronto, which had granted him a leave of absence so he could move to Calgary, where the women’s team was centralized starting in August in preparation for the Sochi Games.

In a telephone interview just before boarding his flight, Church suggested philosophical differences made it impossible for him to continue coaching the team, and there were no health or personal issues involved in the decision.

Church had earlier tweeted he was “heartbroken” by the turn of events that convinced him he had to step down.

“This wasn’t how I imagined my Olympic journey would end,” said Church, who didn’t want to get into specifics about where the conflicts arose, only that there were differences of opinion on the direction in which the team was headed.

From the outside, that direction looked to be fairly promising. Canada won its past three meetings with archrival United States, and compiled a 10-11 record in its games against midget boys’ triple-A teams thus far this season.

Church noted November was a challenging month, because the team was playing with a short bench, but that hockey seasons went in cycles and the women’s team appeared to be trending up in December.

“In the end, I just decided if I’m getting in the way of where the team needs to go, I need to step aside and let them continue on in the process,” Church said in a separate interview with The Canadian Press.

As a head coach, Church led the national women’s team to a gold medal at the 2012 world championship and silver medal at the 2013 worlds. He also steered the national women’s under-18 squad to gold at the 2010 world event.

The Canadian women have won the last three Olympic gold medals, after claiming silver in 1998.

Smith reiterated Church’s decision was “strictly about hockey.”

“The reason we say ‘personal reasons’ was because they were his reasons for making the change,” he said. “I truly respect Dan and his involvement in the program and understand that this would be a difficult decision for him.”

According to Smith, he, Davidson and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson will work together to find Church’s replacement.

With so little time left before the Olympics, it could be difficult to parachute in a newcomer. “We believe we’re likely looking for a head coach, but most important, we’re looking for the right person that fits within the coaching staff.”

It remains to be seen if there is such a person out there, someone with enough experience that the transition can be seamless.

“We’ve had some discussion about candidates and think there are some good candidates out there,” Smith said. “We’re doing whatever we can to advance this process as quickly as possible.

“We understand this is news that was not expected, but we have a great group of athletes and a great group of people who understand the need and the desire to stay focused and committed to the ultimate desire of winning a gold medal.”

For Church, watching the games from Sochi will be difficult, but ultimately, he will be a fan, cheering them on to victory.

“I wish the players and staff all the best going forward,” he said in a statement. “I have understood from the beginning of this process that winning gold in Sochi was this team’s only focus.

“I believe that stepping aside for personal reasons at this time will help the team achieve its goal.”

Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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