After dearth of hockey, Canadian women's hockey team savours Beijing preparation

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CALGARY — Never have players on the Canadian women's hockey team looked forward to the rigours of pre-Olympic preparation more.

Ice time wasn't always available during the COVID-19 pandemic, let alone skating in large groups or playing a game.

Olympic team alumni have said the months they lived, trained and played games in Calgary before a Winter Games were the closest they came to feeling like professional hockey players.

It's the only time they get dedicated ice time, a regular slate of games, full-time coaching, hockey expenses covered and access to similar medical and health supports the male pros get.

The majority of Canada's players are without a league since the collapse of the Canadian Women's Hockey League over two years ago, and the pandemic hampering the formation of a replacement has the players welcoming the gruelling months ahead.

"It means a lot," Canadian forward Blayre Turnbull said. "Especially after the past couple years, some of us haven't really had true hockey seasons.

"The fact that we'll all be able to spend the season together and play and practise as a team, it means a great deal to all of us."

The 29 players invited to centralize in Calgary arrived in July.

A 25-player roster was chosen for the world championship concluding Tuesday in their home arena at Calgary's Canada Olympic Park.

Canada faces Switzerland and defending champion the United States takes on Finland in Monday's semifinals.

After a week's break following the world championship, the Canadian women resume their quest to be chosen for the 23-player Olympic roster and win the gold medal in Beijing in February.

After winning four straight gold, Canada lost in a 3-2 shootout to the U.S. in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in 2018.

Olympic women's rosters will remain at 23 — three goaltenders and 20 skaters — in Beijing.

The International Ice Hockey Federation is expected to approve in September expanding women's rosters to 25 to equal the men's for future world championships, and then lobby the International Olympic Committee to do the same for 2026.

Hockey Canada's director of national teams Gina Kingsbury intends to name the Olympic roster before December's holiday break.

Before that, however, the women will be put through a sustained high volume of dryland training, practice skates and games.

Twenty skaters — Canada went with 12 forwards and eight defenders in 2018 — will be selected from nine defenders and 17 forwards.

Goaltenders Ann-Renee Desbiens of La Malbaie, Que., Emerance Maschmeyer of Bruderheim, Alta., and Kristen Campbell of Brandon, Man., are Beijing-bound, but are competing for coveted starts there.

A reshuffling of the coaching staff may be afoot.

Head coach Troy Ryan of Spryfield, N.S. must decide how he wants to replace assistant Jim Midgley, who was named to the coaching staff of the NHL's New York Rangers during the women's championship.

Kori Cheverie of New Glasgow, N.S., and Doug Derraugh of Arnprior, Ont., remain as Ryan's assistants.

Canada will play more games against the U.S. and Finland women this winter, and less against local male triple-A clubs than in previous centralizations.

Eight games against the U.S. women and as many against Finland's women are planned, including travelling to Finland in November for a series there.

The American women start their "residency" in Blaine, Minn., in October.

Canada opens its pre-Olympic series against them Oct. 22 and Oct. 25 in Allentown, Pa., and Hartford, Conn. respectively.

"We've really increased our international competition," Kingsbury said. "We'd be looking at the same amount of games, if you include the world championship games, as we would in our normal centralization."

The world not yet free of COVID-19, Kingsbury expects plans may change.

"If we've learned anything in the last 16 months, it's you have to adapt and be able to adjust," she said. "It helps that our entire group is double-vaccinated."

Since the 2006 Olympics, the women made games in Alberta's male triple-A league a cornerstone of their centralization schedule.

Kingsbury wants to arrange exhibition games against them, and possibly Junior A clubs, but didn't want to be locked into a league's schedule this time.

"We're not going to join the league as we have in the past. It's not COVID," Kingsbury said. "We felt strongly about increasing our international games and playing more women's hockey at its highest level.

"We felt really strongly about making sure the schedule was optimal for our needs. That wasn't always the case tied to a league."

Combined financial assistance from Hockey Canada and Sport Canada's Athletes' Assistance Fund (AAF) during centralization gives the players them a few thousand dollars a month to live on.

Kingsbury declined to state exact figures for this season.

Between Hockey Canada and Sport Canada, it worked out to roughly $5,000 per month in 2017-2018.

The money allows players to concentrate more on hockey and less on side gigs for cash.

"Not having to have side gigs, not having to work, it already takes enough energy out of you training for the Olympics," forward Natalie Spooner said.

"Just having that as our main focus, it feels really good and lets us really bond as a team. We're really a team and we're going to be together here for the next six months."

Own The Podium, which provides technical expertise and directs targeted Sport Canada funding to sports based on medal potential, significantly raised the money for women's hockey in the four-year quadrennial since Pyeongchang compared to the previous quad.

Hockey Canada received a combined $5.9 million for women's hockey compared to $4.6 million over the four years before 2018.

"We feel we've got a good plan in place. It's obviously quite costly," Kingsbury said. "We wouldn't be able to do it without the support of Hockey Canada and certainly the support of Own The Podium."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 29, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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