VANCOUVER — The Hockey Canada Cup is a breezy test event for the old hats at Vancouver’s Olympic organizing committee, the last of 17 tune-ups before the Games begin in February.
But for the Canadian senior women’s national team, the four-nation tournament is a test in every sense.
Like host venue General Motors Place, which is awash in hard hats and best steel-toe boots these days, the women’s team is under construction.
It is coming off a season that featured a first-ever loss to Sweden and a second consecutive loss to the archrival United States at the world championships, this one a cause-for-alarm defeat.
“We made a point of not forgetting that feeling,” said veteran forward Jennifer Botterill, one of four Canadian players seeking to play in a fourth Olympics.
This week, the Hockey Canada Cup brings an opportunity for Canada to test itself against the other global superpower in women’s hockey, as well as Sweden and Finland, who are no longer pushovers.
The U.S. has won four of the last six meetings against Canada, including the 4-1 victory in April’s gold-medal game.
But the tournament is also an occasion to see who might fit on the 21-woman Olympic roster, which mandates three goaltenders and 18 skaters. Canada is carrying 26 players, including three who are injured and won’t compete this week, and a torturous round of cuts looms for head coach Melody Davidson later this winter.
That subject was already on the coach’s lips yesterday, the eve of the first international event of the Olympic season, but the immediate goal is to measure the team’s off-season progress.
Davidson and her staff refocused after some tough talk from Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson this spring, and the players paid the price with some gruelling off-season work.
Nicholson re-affirmed the gold-or-bust standard at Hockey Canada’s annual general meeting in Vancouver this May, singling out the women’s world championship result just before the program was to undergo its annual June review.
“I’m still here. I guess it was a good review,” a breath-easy Davidson laughed yesterday. “I don’t think we’re making any big changes, but we are paying better attention to the details and we’re becoming better teammates.”
To wit, the team assembled for three weeks this spring, staging will-testing boot camps in British Columbia’s interior. Botterill said the players bonded by playing board games around the campfire and canoeing, but this was hardly a leisurely getaway.
The training sessions were so demanding that players were not given a daily schedule, lest they be intimidated by what the staff had planned.
“We pushed those girls very, very hard,” Davidson said. “They showed up every day, and as dog tired as they were, I didn’t get one complaint. I know they didn’t like me a lot of days, but nobody was saying ‘Back off.’ ”
Botterill said her teammates understand what lies ahead this winter and are “more excited than ever.”
The team could play as many as 62 games before the Olympics, depending on how far it advances in tournaments such as the Hockey Canada Cup. More than half of the games will be played against triple-A midget teams from Alberta, near the team’s base in Calgary.
In Vancouver, the team’s base will be at UBC Thunderbird Arena. Davidson said she was disappointed that the Hockey Canada Cup couldn’t be played at UBC, so that the team could become more familiar with its Olympic digs.
The women’s teams, who will play the Olympic medal round at GM Place, are being used as guinea pigs in place of the NHL professionals who will contest the men’s tournament at the arena next February.
Part of GM Place’s agreement with Olympic organizers included hosting a test event, but NHL stakeholders are nervous enough with summer orientation camps, let alone competitive tournaments.
The facility is currently undergoing extensive renovations for the Olympics, so teams and officials are working around construction clutter.
“I wouldn’t call it ‘upset,’ but it is disappointing because it’s important from a planning process,” Davidson said of the tournament site. “But our plan – a full-time team – never changed.”