Canadian women's hockey team regain legs, minds in time for Sochi

The Canadian Press

SOCHI, Russia - Recognizing his player were physically and mentally spent, Kevin Dineen held out a credit card. Forward Jayna Hefford grabbed it.

Dineen's only condition that January night in St. Poelten, Austria, was that all 21 players on the Canadian women's hockey team were involved in whatever they charged to the coach's plastic.

"He said 'one drink,'" Hefford said. "He didn't say how big though."

And so the Canadian women began refilling their empty tanks for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Canada opens defence of its three straight Olympic gold medals in women's hockey Saturday against Switzerland. The Canadians meet Finland on Monday and take on reigning world champion U.S. on Feb. 12 to conclude the preliminary round.

The Canadian women have played almost 50 games since they began training full time in Calgary in August.

The final three weeks of preparation were gruelling by design to further battle harden them for Sochi. Games were sandwiched between stepped-up dryland training sessions.

On the team's final weekend in Canada before departing for Austria, the women lost to a midget triple-A team Jan. 17, rode the bikes hard for an hour after practice the following day and then had less than 24 hours to recover before an afternoon game Jan. 19.

The players were exhausted after that final game.

"I think we felt like we'd been run over by a truck," defenceman Meaghan Mikkelson said.

"I remember being on that bike on that Saturday and thinking to myself 'I've never been this physically exhausted in my life' and I've always trained very hard. In fact, I overtrain. I've never been pushed like that."

While the women were driven similarly hard in their last phase of training before 2010 and 2006, there were more emotional stressors this time.

The abrupt departure of Dan Church on Dec. 12 meant Canada was without a head coach for five days less than two months out from the opening ceremonies.

They had to adjust on the fly to Dineen, an NHL coach and former player who was fired by the Florida Panthers in November.

Before the team departed for their pre-Sochi camp in St. Poelten, Dineen gave the captain's 'C' to Caroline Ouellette even though Hayley Wickenheiser had worn it since 2007.

Canada lost all four exhibition games to the U.S. women and went 1-6 in the Alberta Midget Hockey League after Church's departure.

Playing games exhausted and losing would make any athlete question the plan, but veterans of previous Olympic teams assured the rookies there was a point to their pain.

"It was challenging in a lot of ways," said Hefford, a five-time Olympian. "Confidence-wise as an athlete, you lose and you lose and you never want to be in that position where losing becomes OK and it becomes normal. I don't think we got to that point.

"Sometimes it comes down to the veterans saying 'This has happened before and you're going to feel good and we've got to push through this and believe in that plan.'"

The hard training in combination with games was even counterintuitive to Dineen. He was accustomed to games, not preparing for them, as the priority in the NHL.

"That's not the way I was used to doing my business," he admitted. "I think we were a tired bunch physically and mentally. I think we were a little grumpy at times and that's fair enough.

"That's the way the schedule was set up and from Day 1, I bought into what we were doing to prepare for the Olympics."

The jet-lagged Canadians lost 5-4 to a boys under-18 team upon their arrival in Austria. It was at that point Dineen staged an intervention by giving the players two days off from the ice and the aforementioned credit card.

"Why did I hand over a credit card to Jayna?" Dineen said.

"I think they might have been a little sensitive that the program had not had much success on the wins and losses to that point. I wasn't sweating it. I know they're prepared, I know they're ready. I know it hadn't been always fun for us, but the chance to go out in a different country and have a soda pop with one of your teammates is a pretty awesome night."

"Maybe I gave them a little nudge. You get around people in a different atmosphere and sometimes it changes the dynamics and conversations."

A simple night of dinner and drinks marked the start of the women's taper towards Sochi and it was welcomed. The women won their next game in Austria 8-1 against a male under-20 team for their first victory under Dineen.

"At that point I felt we came together as a team and turned the corner," Mikkelson said. "We just hung out and spent time together away from the rink as a group of girls.

"I think that's when I felt like the grass was greener on the other side and we're finally on the green grass."

The Canadian women arrived in Sochi last Sunday looking fresher. They were skating faster in practices during the week.

"We didn't change anything in our plan because we were losing games," assistant coach Danielle Goyette said.

"Our goal is to win all the games at the Olympics and win the last one. We might have sacrificed some games this year, but we had to make sure we were peaking at the right time."

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