During a recent practice at the XFINITY Arena, it seemed to be business as usual for the U.S. Women’s National Team as coaches drew up various drills on dry erase boards against the glass. The players quickly split into groups and, short of the occasional slip-up, moved easily through each exercise as if they’d been doing it for an entire season together.
What’s amazing is, they haven’t.
With the exception of a couple of camps, the players have been scattered throughout the hockey season, either playing at the pro or college level. And five U.S. players had yet to make it to camp because they were playing in Sunday’s NCAA championship game in which the University of Minnesota beat Boston College 3-1.
Those players in camp from the start have 10 days to prepare to defend their title when the IIHF Women’s World Championship begins March 28 in Kamloops, British Columbia.
For U.S. defenseman Megan Bozek, that’s plenty of time.
“It’s something that you have to expect,” Bozek, one of 13 Olympians on the squad, said. “There’s a handful of girls that play on the same team throughout the year, so that helps. When you get to this level, I think it’s expected that you can go to a camp and get paired with two other people or a defensive partner and expect that you can play your game well.”
Bozek wrapped up her season last week with the Buffalo Beauts of the new National Women’s Hockey League. Almost half of the 23 players on the U.S. roster played this season in the first-year pro league.
“It’s a bit of a rivalry during the season, but when we come together, it’s awesome,” Bozek said. “I’ve played with these girls for a handful of years now.”
Bozek added that coaches prepare the players to play in various line combinations.
“That’s how our camps are in August and December,” Bozek said. “You’re thrown onto a team with 18 people that you’ve never played with. There’s always going to be different line combinations every night; it could be period after period. … If injuries happen during games, lines will be shuffled. You have to expect anything that comes at you.”
As the team prepares to defend its world title, intra-squad competition also helps the player get ready to face the world’s best. Alex Rigsby, a member of last year’s world championships team, is one of three goalies battling for playing time this season.
Rigsby was almost flawless in last year’s WWC, owning a 2-0-0 record with a 1.13 goals-against average. She’s in camp with Jessie Vetter and Lindenwood University’s Nicole Hensley. Vetter is a two-time Olympic silver medalist. She’s also Rigsby’s teammate with the Minnesota Whitecaps, and both played collegiately at the University of Wisconsin.
While only one goalie can play at a time, Rigsby says the group has done well encouraging one another.
“We have a great relationship,” Rigsby said. “It’s been so much fun. I’m lucky to be able to train with Vetter back home. It’s been really fun getting to know her, especially these past couple of years. Obviously I’ve looked up to her for a long time now.
“Nicole Hensley, we’ve been roommates before at camps and I was so excited when she made the team. It’s a great group, and the three of us are really calm and chill. There’s no egos in the way, and obviously whoever is playing, we’re going to support them and do our best for the team.”
Though downtime is limited and mostly reserved for resting in hotel rooms, the team has managed to find some time to mesh off the ice as well.
“At dinner we sit for an extra half-hour and chat,” Bozek said. “We play Mexican Train, Bananagrams, a lot of card games. There’s a lot that goes on, and if people need rest, it’s not rude to go up to your rooms and lay down or go to the med room and get recovery, whatever you need.
“But it is nice to hang out with everyone and sit at meals with everyone because you’re used to your old routine where you’re not with these girls. Knowing we’re training for the ultimate goal here in a few weeks makes it even better.”
It’s an ultimate goal, with a short time to get there.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.