Monday, January 12, 2009

Canada is always the underdog, right?

Someone else can better judge what this means for women's hockey, with the Winter Olympics coming up in 13 months.

Outside the Olympics, there are four major international events in the women's game -- the worlds, the Four Nations tournament, the MLP Cup U22 tournament and the world U18 championship. Canada is not the title-holder in any of the four. The U18 team ended with silver on Saturday after a 3-2 overtime loss to the U.S. on Saturday in Fussen, Germany. It was a one-shot game, obviously, but Team USA never trailed.

The U22 team ended up second after losing to Sweden in the MLP Cup final on Tuesday, a reversal of the outcome from the world junior gold medal game in Ottawa the previous evening -- and giving a certain someone a reason to rock the Tre Kronor that day. Sara Grahn, who was also in net when Sweden's senior national team beat Canada for the first time ever at the Four Nations in Lake Placid, N.Y., in November, was the goalie of record in that game too.

One does have to wonder if the sports-admin types in this country are starting to take the success of the women's national team for granted. The mainstays who have served Canada so well for a decade-plus such as Hayley Wickenheiser, Jennifer Botterill and Jayna Hefford are not going to play forever.

USA Hockey already has their veterans, the players who are out of college, playing together in a residency program (New York Times, Dec. 21). Granted, there is an argument over the efficacy of residency programs for national teams (it hasn't always helped Canadian in international soccer), but you could also say the Americans are ramping up their efforts for Vancouver.
"...postgraduate players faced a stone wall in their development.

"... Some, like Molly Engstrom, a University of Wisconsin graduate, joined a Canadian women's team, but she said she found the competition and intensity lacking.

"... On the days between games, players spend four hours working out in the morning at the complex’s Herb Brooks Training Center, a mix of on-ice drills, power skating, yoga and weight lifting ... USA Hockey refurbished the team’s dressing room last month, so players no longer have to lug their equipment from home.

" 'We’re playing 70, 80 games a year, some of us,' (national team veteran Angela) Ruggiero said. 'The amount of games we’re going to get is making us all better hockey players. We’re getting more games than the college kids. That’s something that will help all postgrad players.' " (emphasis mine)
Canada's national team will live and train together for several months before the Olympics, where they will also have the emotional lift from playing on home ice. However, one wonders if expecting the vets to train on their own and play with their club teams, while counting on major NCAA schools to train the younger players is really wise.

Speaking of which, the best team in women's college hockey, Minnesota-Duluth, is actually draws its leadership Scandinavians, with Turin heroine Kim Martin in goal, compatriots Pernilla Winberg and Elin Holmlov as its top scorers and Finnish Olympian Saara Tuominen as its captain. Evidently, it's a natural fit, considering that UMD has players named Fridfinnson, Mattila and Olson who are not among their four Swedes and two Finns.

It seems worth wondering about, and one hopes the media in Canada would take a similiar look like The Times did -- and not two weeks before the Olympics, soon.

The bottom line is it's a welcome sign that women's hockey is more competitive. However, that rational side has to give way to wanting reassurance Canada is going to win. A U.S.-Sweden final come February 2010 would be no fun at all, even as an intellectual exercise.

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