For the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team, the road to Sochi begins against Canada tonight – the first of a half-dozen exhibitions between the gold medal favorites.
“There’s definitely a level of excitement and energy,” Reagan Carey, the general manager of the U.S. team, said after the team bus arrived in Burlington, Vt., on Friday. “We’ve had a few games already, but certainly the first game against Canada, they’re really ready to go. Everybody’s trying to pace themselves also. We’re trying to stay focused on what we need to do at the end of the road here.”
Canada and the United States are the dominant teams in women’s hockey, winning every Olympic gold medal and all but one of the silvers. They also have met in the world championship finals every single time.
So even though this is only the first exhibition of a pre-Olympic tour, the opportunity to face the Canadians adds a little extra to the matchup. They last played in the final of the world championships in Ottawa, with the Americans winning the gold medal game 3-2.
“It’s still very early in our tour, so I think for both teams it will be kind of ‘get your feet wet’ games,” forward Kelli Stack said. “Obviously, we take them all seriously. But the closer it gets to the actual Olympics the more serious they become.”
Canada is 10-5 against the United States in the world championship finals, but the U.S. has won four of the past five, including the 2013 title game. The Canadians also have won the past three Olympic gold medals.
“The past is the past,” said defenseman Anne Schleper, who was not on the team that lost to Canada in the 2010 Olympic final but did beat them in this year’s world championships. “It’s liberating just to think we get two shots at Canada in the next week here. Not just Canada, but the whole journey is a dream come true and I just hope I can say I’m on that final roster for Sochi.”
The teams are scheduled to meet in six exhibition games plus the Four Nations Cup in November.
“It’s a great rivalry, and we really look forward to playing them throughout the year just because it’s the best teams in the world,” Stack said.
The teams will also play in the preliminary round of the Olympics. But the game everyone is anticipating is the gold medal game in Sochi on Feb. 20.
Even if the players won’t talk about that yet.
“It’s still early. We have to remember that,” Schleper said. “Obviously, our goal as a team is to be in that gold medal game and to win the gold medal game. But we can’t look past the competition. If we don’t show up or if Canada doesn’t show up in one of those games, it could be a different outcome.”