Cen­tral in­tel­li­gence

Cana­dian women’s team reap­ing ben­e­fits of a full-time pro­gram

Ottawa Sun - - SPORTS - ROB LON­G­LEY rlon­g­ley@post­media.com @lon­g­ley­sun­sport

GANGNE­UNG — For the most part the Cana­dian women hockey play­ers here have man­aged to keep the eye rolls to them­selves.

The pre­dictable ques­tions keep com­ing — and with Thurs­day’s game against the U.S., now upon us, right on cue. What is it about an Olympic year that swings the puck pen­du­lum in Canada’s favour? Why is it such a great ri­valry? Why are the Amer­i­cans favoured?

Given the for­mat of the women’s Olympic tour­na­ment, it’s a near lock that the two teams will meet for gold yet again next week. And given the USA has cap­tured the ti­tle at each of the past three world cham­pi­onships, the Cana­di­ans are ac­tu­ally un­der­dogs here at the Pyeongchang Games.

But thanks to a cen­tral­iza­tion pro­gram that max­i­mizes the skill and tal­ents of the best group of women’s hockey play­ers in the world, lit­tle of what hap­pened the past three years mat­ters.

The Amer­i­cans as favourites nar­ra­tive must also bring a smile to the Cana­dian play­ers who have won their two games so far by a com­bined score of 9-1. Of course, they have won the past four Olympic gold medals and also ended 2017 ex­hi­bi­tion play with a fourgame win­ning streak over their arch ri­vals.

Their Olympic for­mula, how­ever, pro­vides a proven edge.

“The Amer­i­cans are a great coun­try for hockey, but we are too,” Cana­dian for­ward Meghan Agosta said diplo­mat­i­cally. “And ever since Au­gust we have im­proved con­sid­er­ably. Our coach­ing staff has done a great job get­ting us up to the level that we need to be at.”

Cer­tainly credit coach Laura Schuler with a share of that. There seems to be a com­plete buy in from her play­ers and the de­fen­sive and of­fen­sive schemes she’s rolled out have been clin­i­cally ef­fi­cient in wins over the Olympic Ath­letes from Rus­sia and Fin­land.

But it’s more than coach­ing. In­sti­tu­tion­ally, the Cana­di­ans are bet­ter equipped every Olympic year to kick butt.

It all be­gins with Hockey Canada’s cen­tral­iza­tion pro­gram based at Cal­gary’s Win­sport Markin MacPhail cen­tre. The en­tire team and non-Cal­gary-based sup­port staff checked in to the fa­cil­ity Aug. 1 and other than a short Christ­mas break have been to­gether ever since.

The 28 ini­tial in­vi­tees were even­tu­ally trimmed to 23 in late De­cem­ber but through­out the camp sys­tems were in­te­grated, eval­u­a­tions were made and the mar­riage of what ul­ti­mately turned out to be nine rook­ies and 14 vet­er­ans had a chance to so­lid­ify.

“No. 1 (with) cen­tral­iza­tion is the op­por­tu­nity to coach a team full team,” Schuler said. “These girls are get­ting all the sup­port ser­vices they have in place to be the best they can be. Full-time train­ing. Full­time train­ers to make sure they’re healthy. They’re stay­ing on the ice. From a coach­ing per­spec­tive we’re able to sit down and do one-on-one video. There’s just so much more time to teach.”

The process ac­tu­ally be­gan in late May when the play­ers re­ported to a two-week “boot camp” in Fred­er­ic­ton, N.B. Then af­ter shift­ing West to Cal­gary it has been all busi­ness.

From a game on Sept. 21 to a fi­nal pre-Olympic prep on Feb. 4, the team played 42 con­tests and had 35 prac­tices. Not only did it pro­vide the op­por­tu­nity to nail the nec­es­sary hockey fun­da­men­tals, the team bond­ing el­e­ment is an in­tan­gi­ble not to be un­der­stated. By com­par­i­son, men’s coach Wil­lie Des­jardins has had one pre-sea­son game and three prac­tices with his full squad.

“You show up every day at the rink with other play­ers who have the same goals and dreams as you do,” said for­ward Ha­ley Ir­win. “We’re push­ing each other and you couldn’t ask for a bet­ter en­vi­ron­ment.

“We’re there to pick each other up when we need it and we’re there to push each other when we need it. The mem­o­ries we cre­ate is some­thing we can cher­ish for a life­time.”

Get­ting the team to­gether dur­ing a non-Olympic year is con­sid­er­ably more chal­leng­ing for Hockey Canada. Play­ers are scat­tered amongst club teams across Canada and NCAA pro­grams in the U.S. The world cham­pi­onships are one thing, but the Olympics are the big deal.

“The play­ers don’t have a full-time sched­ule when they are in col­lege so they aren’t get­ting the same in­ten­sity as they do (with cen­tral­iza­tion),” Hockey Canada women’s gen­eral man­ager Melody David­son said. “There’ al­ways that com­par­i­son in the men’s game with col­lege and ma­jor ju­nior pro­grams. It’s just not the same.

“This pro­gram pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for growth and de­vel­op­ment that right now we only get every four years, so we’ve got to make the most of it when we’re to­gether.”

The six months to­gether tar­geted to what is al­most al­ways a one-game show­down also brings with it ex­treme pres­sure. And as so many games be­tween the two na­tions have shown since women’s hockey made it’s Olympic de­but in 1998, there is lit­tle to sep­a­rate them.

“There’s a lot more at­ten­tion on us when it comes to Fe­bru­ary,” Cana­dian for­ward Bri­anne Jen­ner said. “But that’s ex­cit­ing. If you are a hockey player in this coun­try and you play for Team Canada, you’re kind of used to pres­sure and it’s some­thing you have to en­joy. We’re ex­cited to have a chance to play on the world stage when every­body’s watch­ing.”


Canada goalie Shan­non Sz­aba­dos stops a shot by U.S. for­ward Alex Car­pen­ter dur­ing the gold-medal game of the women’s world hockey cham­pi­onships last April. The teams met in the pre­lim­i­nary round last night. For the re­sult, go to toron­to­sun.com

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