Canada's blend of youth, wisdom an irresistible force

Neate Sager
February 25, 2010

It's a question of motivation in Thursday night's U.S.-Canada women's hockey gold-medal game (6:30, CTV).

Betting sites are giving Canada -1, so Team Canada has more incentive. The media have played up the age-vs.-youth angle: Team USA has 15 first-time Olympians, compared with Canada's 15 veterans. But Canada has a core of 30-somethings who might not be back in 2014. There's no doubt an imperative to make sure no one goes out with a silver medal, which is tantamount to failure.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser, 31, has said she'll try to play in a fifth Games in Sochi. Top-line forwards Jayna Hefford (center in photo) and Caroline Ouellette, who play alongside tournament scoring leader Meghan Agosta (who has been anointed the best player in the world), are also over 30. Winger Jennifer Botterill (who saw a role-playerish 11:33 of ice time in the semifinal), defenders Becky Kellar and Colleen Sostorics, and goalie Kim St-Pierre will be pressed by the surfeit of young players in the system. It's the reality of a booming sport.

The Americans are impressive, particularly 20-year-old twin forwards Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux (a combined five points in the semifinal against Sweden) and goalie Jessie Vetter. As a young team facing a pro-Canada crowd, it has a mental out that the Canadians don't have.

The Americans' chances might rest on getting Canada off-balance early, as it did with a first-shift goal in last year's world final, the horror in Hameenlinna.

Overall, though, Canada's combo of veteran stabilizers (you have to love Hefford's phrasing about "This so-called pressure ...") and top-end young talent is tough not to like. The emergence of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which has 11 of its players playing Thursday night, probably has worked more to Canada's benefit.

On the youth side, the likes of Agosta (right in photo) and 18-year-old phenom Marie-Philip Poulin (left) have a good chance of becoming household names Thursday, rewarding the national team's pioneers.

Since Turin, Canada has smartly overhauled its back end. Catherine Ward, who led the McGill Martlets to the past two Canadian Interuniversity Sport titles (in her absence, McGill has extended its win streak to 81 games), has become the workhorse defender.

It has unfolded the same way in goal. There is a lot of media speculation over whether Canada will start 23-year-old Shannon Szabados, who played the semifinal, or 31-year-old St-Pierre. It's the same scenario coach Melody Davidson had before the 2002 final in Salt Lake City. In that case, she broke her rotation and went with her younger 'tender (St-Pierre over Sami-Jo Small), so it stands to reason that that might be the choice again.

Throw in a few other margins that work out in Canada's favor – for instance, Gina Kingsbury is the best faceoff woman in the tournament at 75 percent – and you can see why it should win this by 4-2 or 5-3.

Consider Canada the irresistible force and Vetter the immovable object.

Footnotes

A couple other things: IOC President Jacques Rogge, incidentally, has given women's hockey a vote of confidence, the Chicago Tribune reports. It's being played as a get-better-or-get-out message in Canada, but it is open to interpretation.

"This is the investment period in women's ice hockey. I would give them more time to prove (themselves), but there must be at a certain stage an improvement. There is an improvement in a certain number of nations, and we want to see this wider.

"Women hockey is a young sport, but the sport has to grow. The Games themselves will do a lot to help the popularity of the sport, but you need a couple of years to get to the stage. I have no doubt that in the future, women hockey will be a hit."

Meantime, Scott Stinson of the National Post took the starch out of unoriginal people who bash women's hockey (fairly typical example):

"You say that not enough women play hockey internationally to make it legitimate? How about the sport of nordic combined, in which participants both cross-country ski and ski jump? Are there leagues devoted to the pursuit of such an odd combination of skills somewhere? Does little Bjorn Svennsonn go to bed at night dreaming of one day being a decent cross-country skier and decent ski jumper — not quite good enough to participate in either event alone, but good enough at both that he can be an Olympian?"