Christmas may have come and gone, but there is still one more present waiting for the 21 athletes who will eventually make up the 2014 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team.
And unlike the gifts they received on Wednesday, this one is something they will have to earn on their own. There are no gimmies when it comes to an Olympic gold medal.
After spending a few well-deserved days away from the rink with family and friends, Team USA was back on the ice Friday night, preparing for Saturday’s pre-Olympic exhibition against Canada at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. The fast-paced practice yielded plenty of smiles and a second helping of effort as players looked to burn off the extra calories consumed when the team nutritionist, Alicia Kendig, wasn’t looking.
“That’s one day when all rules don’t really apply,” said Hilary Knight, who spent the holidays with her family in Maine. “We have a tradition of having a lot of French Toast on Christmas day so I ate a lot of French Toast.”
After spending so many months training together at The Edge Sports Center in Bedford, Mass., players were excited to see each other again, and ready to kick things into high gear for the stretch run to Sochi.
“Everybody was excited to get back together. They’re embracing all the work, and all the challenges,” said head coach Katey Stone. “The days off were good but they all know that there’s a job to do.”
That showed during the hourlong practice that featured a number of small area games and quick tempo drills. It ended with the team huddling at center ice to sing “Happy Birthday” to 23-year-old defenseman Josephine Pucci.
“There was a lot of communication, a lot of smiles,” Stone said. “They moved the puck pretty well and the goaltenders got a lot of work. But tomorrow will be a different day so we’ll just have to take it as it comes.”
Tomorrow features the front end of a home-and-home series between the U.S. and Canada before each team returns to their neutral corner to fine tune their squads for another gold-medal run. In the wake of the spirited finish the last time these two teams met on Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., the Xcel Energy Center should be rocking when the puck drops in the final game of the Bring On The World Tour.
The two teams will meet again on Dec. 30 in Toronto before the U.S. squad heads to Ann Arbor where the team will officially be announced during the second intermission of the NHL’s Winter Classic on NBC.
After dropping three against Canada, the U.S. has come storming back to claim the last two contests in impressive fashion, 5-1 in Calgary, Alberta and the 4-1 effort in Grand Forks.
While both victories have come on the heels of Canadian head coach Dan Church’s sudden resignation, the American players and coaches insist that it has more to do with their preparation than any distractions to their opponent.
“I think we just started focusing on ourselves,” said U.S. Women’s Team captain Meghan Duggan. “We work on different things in practice. We try to be really sound in our defensive zone and not let them push us around. We forecheck like crazy and basically beating them to every single puck and using our speed and our size, and it’s really worked out for us.”
The final month of preparation will feature the team skating in a number of scrimmages against Midget teams from around the Boston area. It’s a move that has gained momentum with both North American rivals, and players have touted the benefits.
“The speed is a little bit greater than what we’re used to,” Knight said. “We can practice against each other a lot but that doesn’t necessarily translate to game-like situations. We want to keep pushing the pace, pushing the envelope, and playing against the guys gives us a little free range to figure out what to do in different situations.”
Now that both rosters are close to being finalized, the time is now for the coaching staff to make a few minor adjustments before heading down the homestretch. From her vantage point, Stone is happy with the progress that the team has made over the fall and into the winter stretch run. But she knows that there is still more to do before the puck drops in Sochi.
“We’re just getting better and taking responsibility both individually and collectively. It’s making a difference with simple plays,” said Stone. “I don’t think it’s rocket science, we’re just taking responsibility for their jobs on the ice, handling the puck, possessing the puck and getting to their net when we can.”