Returning to the ice for the first time since they won gold at the 2023 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Brampton, Ontario, in April, the U.S.Women’s National Team will renew its Rivalry Series against Canada this week.
While a large pool of national team players were together for at the USA Hockey National Festival in August, it has been months since the team has played a game together.
“We're excited to get going and to be together as a group. We’ve been waiting for this,” Abby Roque said.
The 2023-24 iteration is the fourth time the two countries have met in a Rivalry Series and will feature seven total games played in the United States and Canada. The first games will be in Tempe, Arizona, on Nov. 8 and in Los Angeles on Saturday, Nov. 11.
With just three practices before the first Rivalry Series game, head coach John Wroblewski was hesitant to put any expectations on the players and the games. Yes, they always want to win, but these games are about seeing where everyone is at. He feels like he’ll have a clearer picture of the path forward once he’s seen how the players’ games have improved since the last time they were on the ice together.
While he said he and the staff want to honor the program’s past and build on Team USA’s legacy, he views these games as something of a restart. He cleared out all his notes, and he plans to approach these games, and the upcoming season leading into the 2024 IIHF World Championship in Utica, New York, in April with a clean slate.
“It's a new season, a new start, and we want to try to come up with a solid baseline to build from,” Wroblewski said. “That’s the goal. We have got some cultural items that we want to make sure we adhere to, like team toughness and tenacity, some new things that we've tried to inject into our attack methodology from the summer that we've been able to implement, and we'll see where we are and how we can continue to grow throughout the season.”
The roster for the first set of games features 21 women who won gold in April. They are joined by Natalie Buchbinder, Anna Wilgren and Grace Zumwinkle, who have spent time with the senior team in previous seasons, and Laila Edwards, who will be making her senior national team debut. Ten of the women are collegiate players, while the other 15 have been signed or drafted by teams in the newly formed PWHL.
Those young players are crucial not just to immediate victories, but to thelong-term success of the program. Roque loves that the older players can see how much the collegians learn and grow month to month and year to year. The atmosphere around the team is one of constant learning, she said, and they are all constantly learning from each other.
The Rivalry Series games make for compelling viewing for the fans, but they give the players the opportunity to get comfortable together on the ice, said Roque.
“These games are what we use to find chemistry between lines and defensive partners and with the team,” Roque said. “It's really important for the younger and newer players to get their chances and get the opportunity to see what they're capable of.”
Wroblewski said it’s a given that the players who make a national team roster are physically and mentally tough. The players who won in April showed they can withstand the pressure of playing against Canada and in a gold-medal game and still perform. Wroblewski and the staff are now looking forward to seeing that toughness on a regular basis.
“Every time a player puts on the jersey to play against Canada, there are nerves,” he said. “The more often they get to do it, the more they learn to control those nerves and turn that energy into excitement and confidence.”
These opportunities where the Americans are tested in every aspect of the game on every inch of the ice help them gauge how far they’ve come and the work that still needs to be done. With few chances to be together as a team over the course of a season, these games help build the culture of the team and the skill of each player.
“My goal as a coach has very little to do with winning in the end as much as it is improving each player by the time the year is over,” Wroblewski said. “If that's accomplished, then I know that we're putting our best foot forward and that if we've got the right players; the results will take care of themselves.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.