The United States women’s national hockey team will return to one of its fondest cities when it kicks off its pre-Olympic tour with a game against archrival Canada on Saturday night at Gutterson Fieldhouse.
The showdown between the two countries expected to battle for Olympic gold at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia in February marks the second phase in the USA team’s preparation. After a month devoted almost exclusively to intense practices, the national team will now use real-game competition to determine which players will be selected for the Olympic roster at the end of December.
The Americans will begin to ramp up their effort in a community they grew to love when Burlington hosted the eight-country International Ice Hockey Federation women’s World Championships in April of 2012. Although the USA fell to Canada, 5-4 in overtime in the finals, the 21-game competition held at Gutterson and Cairns Arena drew 26,205 fans, a record for a U.S.-held women’s world championship.
“What I remember most is how the whole community rallied to support our team,” said Reagan Carey, director of USA Hockey’s women’s national program. “Whether it was on the street or at the arena, we had fans cheering us on.
“It was a wonderful atmosphere, a high-energy environment that really motivated our players. The people were really into it.”
The loss to Canada was the USA’s only misstep and came after the Americans handed the Canadians their worst loss in history earlier in the tournament, a 9-2 shellacking at a sold-out Gutterson.
Eighteen of the 25 players on the current roster competed here in 2012. And the USA gained a measure of payback by knocking off Canada in last year’s world championships.
But the big prize is always Olympic gold. The USA won the first women’s Olympic competition in Nagano, Japan in 1998, but Canada has swept the last three golds, leaving the Americans holding silver in Salt Lake City in 2002, bronze in Torino, Italy in 2006, and silver again in Vancouver in 2010.
The U.S. team fans will see Saturday includes a number of familiar faces, such as Julie Chu, sisters Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, and Jessie Vetter. But there also will be a clutch of up-and-coming stars like Amanda Kessel, Alex Carpenter and Annie Pankowski.
“We’ve got a strong core group but we’ve done a good job of rotating the younger players through,” Carey said. “We have a lot of young energy and after doing a lot of foundation work early-on, we now have the luxury of a month of competition.
“Speed is still our signature strength. Everything we try to do is playing to our speed.”
Saturday’s game begins an eighteen-game tour that includes two more meetings with Canada and the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y. The USA will also play Finland on Nov. 1 at Middlebury College’s Kenyon Arena.
The national team’s strong presence in Vermont is not serendipitous. It reflects both an appreciation for the support the Green Mountain State has shown women’s hockey and an attempt to foster hockey’s growth here.
The game at Middlebury pays tribute to the school’s history in women’s hockey. The Panthers fielded a varsity team in 1981, long before most other schools, and has won five NCAA Division III national championships.
Vermont is still building a foundation after beginning its women’s hockey program in 2001. St. Michael’s College followed a year later and hard-charging Norwich fielded its first team in 2007.
The costs and necessity for extensive roster numbers have made the game an uphill climb for Vermont high schools. The first girls’ hockey championships were held in 2001-02 and last year there will only 19 high schools that competed.
USA Hockey has reached out to the Vermont Principals Association to offer what assistance it can to create a stronger landscape.
“Over the last two years we have met with them to see how we might turn around declining enrollment (in high school programs), said VPA associate director Bob Johnson. “The key is getting girls involved at the elementary and middle school level. You have to do the prep work – you can’t just pick it up in ninth grade.”
Toward that end, the U.S. team will stay in Burlington for a few days following Saturday’s game. A final schedule is still coming together, but the team plans to hold clinics and visit children in area hospitals.
“It’s part of being aware that they are part of something bigger than themselves,” Carey said. “Our players are terrific at realizing that.”