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Canada forward Hayley Wickenheiser watches teammates during a women's ice hockey team practice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 19, 2014. (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)
Canada forward Hayley Wickenheiser watches teammates during a women's ice hockey team practice at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 19, 2014. (LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS)

Canada faces U.S. in battle for women's hockey Olympic gold Add to ...

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They started out together on the 1998 Canadian Olympic team. Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser – the last two players remaining from that tournament, when women’s hockey made its Winter Games debut.

Sixteen years have passed. So much water under the bridge, so many sacrifices to stay in the game. And now, they are back to this same place, almost where they began. The same place – and yet, on some level, different, too.

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Once, they were the young up-and-comers. Now, they are the veteran leaders, nearing the end of their respective careers, their roles revised on a team with a new generation moving to the front of the lineup.

Team Canada plays the United States for the 2014 Sochi Games gold medal Thursday. It will be the fifth such final for both Hefford and Wickenheiser. After taking the silver medal the first time around, they have won gold the past three.

Hefford said she would ultimately reflect on the journey, but, on Wednesday, she was simply trying to stay in the moment.

“Things go by quickly – that’s something I learned early in my career,” the 36-year-old said. “So this year was just about enjoying every day. I take lessons I’ve learned an experiences I’ve learned, but I’m here right now, and ready to go.”

The evolution of the 2014 national team has been interesting in that it has been roughly divided into three groups: the veteran core; a middle group of leaders who played in 2010; and Generation Next, the youngsters on the team making their Olympic debuts.

The range in age and experience is far more varied than with their American counterparts, and head coach Kevin Dineen noted it was 22-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin who spoke up after practice when he asked the players for their advice.

“I think a big part of the message was ‘enjoy the moment’ and that’s where we’re at right now,” Dineen said. “This was earned getting to this stage, so take the time to sit back and appreciate where we’re are instead of getting yourself all psyched up.

“As hockey people, we’re always happiest when we’re on the ice – shooting pucks, doing the things we do. It was a pretty enthusiastic group on the ice today.”

There have been eight meetings between the two teams thus far this season, and, as Hefford noted, the series stands at four wins apiece. So this becomes the rubber match and trying to install one or the other as favourite doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In one game, anything can happen.

Once upon a time, Wickenheiser was the dominating scoring force for the Canadians (and she had a big day in the round-robin meeting with the Americans, scoring once and setting up another), but her role has changed and evolved.

Hilary Knight is a 5-foot-11, 180-pound power forward, arguably the most dangerous player in women’s hockey – and Wickenheiser’s challenge is to shut Knight down Thursday. In the grand scheme of things, these are the quieter, unsung roles that can make the difference between winning and losing.

“Honestly, with Hayley, I think she’s playing the best I’ve seen her play in four years,” said Cassie Campbell-Pascall, a CBC analyst and former long-time member of the national women’s program. “The team game she’s playing is probably the best team game I’ve ever seen her play. To shut down that Knight line, and to be willing to do it for the first time in her career, is good.”

As for Hefford, Campbell-Pascall added: “I’ve never thought she’s gotten the credit she deserves. Out of the three veterans [over the age of 31], she is the one that keeps on ticking. She’s really low-maintenance. She continues to score big goals for this team and be a quiet leader. Her game just gets better, which is pretty incredible.

“This is probably the last one for all of them, so it’s nice to see them contributing and playing so well.”

Prior to the tournament, Wickenheiser ceded her place as captain of the team to Caroline Ouellette, who said the goal was to keep the emotions in check.

“There have been seven of us in the leadership group and all season long, we’ve tried to make sure we have all the players covered in the team, making sure everyone is confident and ready to go,” said Ouellette, 34. “It’s no different here. It’s a big game [Thursday] and when it’s your Olympic-final debut, you’re a little bit nervous. We want to make sure we calm everyone down.

“It is an important hockey game, but it is just a hockey game and we’re ready for it. We believe in our preparation and now it’s time to show it.”

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