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Canada's Gillian Apps, left, is hit by United States' Anne Schleper (15) during the third period of a Four Nations Cup women's hockey game on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, in Lake Placid, N.Y. (Mike Groll/AP)
Canada's Gillian Apps, left, is hit by United States' Anne Schleper (15) during the third period of a Four Nations Cup women's hockey game on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, in Lake Placid, N.Y. (Mike Groll/AP)

Sochi 2014

MacGregor: Canadian women are defending champs yet underdogs once again Add to ...

‘We’ve been ‘underdogs’ since 2001.”

The “we” here, just for the record, is the Canadian women’s hockey team: Olympic gold-medal winners at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, Turin in 2006, Vancouver in 2010, and, just perhaps, Sochi in 2014.

Three gold medals in a row and current defending Olympic champions. Underdogs?

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But Danielle Goyette, Canadian assistant coach, isn’t backing away from her statement. In fact, she adds: “I would say this is our fifth time as underdogs.”

She explains in some detail: The year women’s hockey was added to the Winter Games, 1998 in Nagano, Canada went in as the prohibitive favourite – and lost to the Americans. In 2002, the Canadians had lost eight times in a row to the Americans, yet won the game that counted. In 2006, the Swedish women handed Canada a totally unexpected gift when they defeated the Americans 3-2 in a semi-final. In 2010, the young Americans were coming on strong but Canada dug down deep and prevailed.

Underdogs rule.

Though there may indeed be some debate over Goyette’s long list of hurdles the women have overcome, there can be none concerning Canada’s chances in Sochi this month.

The United States stunned the Canadian women at last spring’s world championship with speed and youth in a convincing gold-medal victory over its greatest (and only) rival. Canada headed into Sochi having lost four exhibition matches in a row to the Americans.

The team replaced its head coach, Dan Church, two months ago and replaced him with former NHL bench boss Kevin Dineen, who promptly took the captain’s “C” from Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada’s flag bearer for the Sochi opening ceremony and the face of Canadian women’s hockey, and gave it to Caroline Ouellette.

The story of internal turmoil has never gotten out – but no one pretends there isn’t a story there.

The 50-year-old Dineen says he didn’t reach out to Church, but it wasn’t because he didn’t empathize. He knew what it was like to be fired. The Florida Panthers let him go last November.

“I sat in that chair about a month before,” the coach says. “I’ve been through those emotions. I was mad, I was sad, I went through that whole range.”

Dineen says he deliberately went into the new job without consultation with the assistant coaches, including Goyette, he would inherit, nor with the Hockey Canada management that hired him. “I felt I wanted to go in there and put my imprint on it with a fresh look. I had some real hard decisions to make in the first month.”

The hardest concerned the captaincy. “I made a decision I felt was right for the team,” Dineen says.

Wickenheiser has accepted her new role with grace, if not with glee, and Dineen has nothing but praise for her work ethic and determination to win again in this, her fifth Winter Games.

“That is one impressive athlete,” Dineen says. “She’s got the juice. She’s ready.”

As for Church, there is praise there, as well.

“I didn’t reach out for him,” Dineen says, “but I think he’s done a real good job of making sure that this group was preparing for this time.”

This time begins, for real, Saturday, when the Canadian women play Switzerland. On Monday, they will meet Finland, and, next Wednesday, it will be the U.S. – in what all anticipate will be a rehearsal for the gold-medal game.

Dineen is well aware women’s hockey regularly comes under criticism during the Olympics for the fact there are really only two teams competing for the top spot and, too often, scores between the top two countries and lesser opponents can be embarrassing. (In Italy in 2006, Canada whipped the host country 16-0; in Vancouver, the Canadians stunned Slovakia 18-0.)

“We want to win every game,” Dineen says, but he doubts there will be any such humiliations in Sochi. The organizers have ensured there will not likely be such lack of balance by putting the Americans and Canadians up against more competitive foes in the opening round.

“I think those days are done,” Dineen says. “I would love to have a cushy game somewhere along the line. I say that with complete honesty. Nothing would make me happier. I just don’t know if that’s part of it.

“I know that when I go see my 10-year-old play and one team is up 8-0, I don’t care which side of it you’re on, it’s no fun. … I don’t know if we’re going to see a heck of a lot of that in this format.”

There may be no blowouts, but that does not mean there will be no plucky underdog to cheer for. It just happens to be Canada, as the hockey world is seen by assistant coach Goyette.

“I really like the position we are in,” she says.

“We have to show that we are better than we showed the last four Games.”

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