Canadian women have work cut out for them.
Canada’s national women’s team finds itself in unfamiliar territory.
After dominating the World Championships with gold medal wins in eight straight tournaments from 1990 to 2004, Canada has been forced to take a back seat to their arch-rivals the United States in 3 of the past 4 events.
A 4-1 victory by the U.S. in the final game of the 2009 tournament played in Hameenlina, Finland placed Canada in the unprecedented position of finishing as silver medalists in consecutive World Championships.
“It’s really disappointing,” said veteran forward Jayna Hefford, who played on Canada’s top forward line along with Jennifer Botterill and Caroline Ouellette. “We felt like we had a really good tournament, and we felt really good going into the final, and just didn’t play well enough. I don’t think we brought the energy we needed to.”
Botterill, who scored Canada’s lone goal in the championship game, agreed with her linemate that the team needs to find more jump to their game if they are to stay competitive with their rivals to the south. The Americans set the tone of the final game when defenseman Caitlin Cahow scored a mere 24 seconds into the first period.
“It’s also about playing better as a team, having better puck support, and making sure that the person with the puck has lots of options,” assessed Botterill of the adjustments needed to made in preparation for the 2010 Olympics.
Canada will have to avoid the rustiness that plagued them in last week’s matchup if they are to avoid a possible retribution from the U.S. in the form of having a potential gold medal usurped on home soil. The Americans would love nothing more than to have “The Star Spangled Banner” played after the final game in Vancouver, having been forced to endure listening to “O Canada” in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Team Canada regroups for a mini-camp in May and June, with a centralized roster scheduled to meet in Calgary in August. Twenty-six players have been named to the roster, which must be trimmed by five in time for the Olympics.
“I think we know that we need to be better,” admitted Botterill. “For us, it’s making sure that we carry that motivation with us through training. I think we still have a lot of confidence in our program.”
However Canada’s coach Melody Davidson sounded less secure, particularly in her own ability to lead her nation’s charge towards a third straight Olympic gold. “Coaching is coaching and if you don’t perform, you don’t go on,” said Davidson to reporters in Finland. “Maybe Hockey Canada has to look at a change. There’s no excuse for that performance out there today,” she said after the final game.
Columnists in at least two Toronto newspapers have floated the very plausible option of replacing Davidson with Pat Quinn. No stranger to international competition, Quinn guided the 2002 men’s hockey team to its first Olympic gold medal in fifty years, receiving inspiration from Botterill, Hefford and their teammates in Salt Lake City just three days earlier. Quinn also guided Team Canada’s Under-20 team to gold at the World Junior Hockey Championships held in Ottawa this past January.
While a change behind the bench is not out of the question, the makeup of the roster will also be different from previous Canadian teams. Hockey Canada has decided to inject more youth into the squad that will attempt to defend its Olympic title. Rebecca Johnston, Haley Irwin and Marie-Philip Poulin are all age 20 or under and have been extended invitations to the centralization camp, while the list excludes veterans Cheryl Pounder and Katie Weatherston.
“I can’t speak for what the coaching staff says, “ said Vicky Sunohara, a three-time Olympic medalist who hasn’t played internationally in two years. “I think with not winning the World Championships or the Four Nations Cup, they felt like they needed to make some changes.”
In Canada’s defeat, Botterill saw a silver lining in the performance of the youngsters. “I think all of us were very impressed with them. It’s great for the game because you see a lot of these great, young, really-skilled players.”
The country that will host the Winter Olympics in less than ten months will be seeing a lot of their fierce rivals in the period leading up to Vancouver. Canada and the U.S. will face off for six pre-Olympic games between October 5 and New Year’s Day, and will tangle at the Hockey Canada Cup in September.
Botterill is up to the challenge.
“We know we have a lot of work to do, but we’re also looking forward to that.”
Rob Del Mundo is the author of Off The Post, a regular column at TMLfans.ca