Women’s hockey: Weekend on ice slows tourney
VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Natalie Darwitz wishes the U.S. women’s hockey team didn’t have to wait through a long weekend for its next Olympic game.
“And I still think we got the best schedule,” the U.S. captain said Saturday. “Canada has to wait four days. We only have to wait three, and that’s still tough.”
The four playoff teams in women’s hockey are skating only in practice until Monday, waiting for a break in the men’s tournament so the women can play for medals at Hockey Canada Place.
After the semifinals, they get two more days off before the gold medal game in the Vancouver Canucks’ 19,300-seat arena. All but one game of the preliminary round was held at the smaller, suburban UBC Thunderbird Arena, where the teams will spend the weekend working out and trying to maintain momentum.
U.S. coach Mark Johnson and Canada’s Melody Davidson don’t like the gaps in the schedule, which could interrupt the rhythm built by the powerful North American clubs during their dominant preliminary-round performances. Yet both coaches realize it’s a necessary sacrifice to make sure all eyes are focused on their growing sport.
“I don’t like it because routine is important to any hockey player,” Johnson said. “Any time there’s a long gap, there’s the chance you come out as a different team. You see it in baseball, when a team wins a playoff series and has a long time off before the next game. It’s about the momentum.”
Canada’s last two games are stretched over eight days, while the Americans have two games in seven days. Darwitz can’t recall ever having a three-day break between games in an international tournament, let alone the Canadians’ four-day break.
“We’re not used to this, but I guess it’s nice to rest and let the body heal a little bit,” Darwitz said. “We haven’t had many days off skating in the last few months.”
Canada opened the tournament in the Canucks’ rink, where more than 16,000 flag-waving fans barely sat down during an 18-0 win over Slovakia. The arena’s crackling atmosphere in that blowout should be even more charged in the playoff games, particularly if the North American teams advance to Thursday’s finale as expected.
“Four days in between is a lot, and when we saw the schedule, we weren’t happy about it,” said Davidson, whose team is aiming at its third consecutive gold medal. “But it’s not like it just fell on our heads. We knew it was coming. It’s good for our game to showcase it on the big rink.”
Canada based its preparations for the Olympics on a game-heavy schedule. Along with several exhibitions against the Americans and other women’s teams, Canada played a 30-game schedule against teams in a teenage boys’ league across Alberta, taking buses from their camp in Calgary to many outlying areas.
While Canada rarely went more than four days between games, the Americans played fewer exhibitions. Sweden, which will face the U.S. team on Monday, emphasized heavy weeks of practice in its preparations.
All four playoff teams are using the down time to soak in more of the Olympic experience – something the players and coaches were able to do after their events ended in Turin, where they played their five games in 10 days instead of the 13-day stretch in Vancouver.
The American team had Friday off until mid-afternoon, with many players going downtown, enjoying a sunny Vancouver day – or catching up on sleep, as Darwitz did. The women’s team then met the U.S. men’s team and their families for dinner at a West Vancouver country club with spectacular views of the water and bridges.
Not everybody hates the schedule. U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero likes the gaps, saying she has played in too many tournaments in which the losing team only had one day off between games against a rested opponent. Ruggiero also has used the off time to encourage everybody in the Olympic village to vote for her in her attempt to get on the IOC athletes’ committee.
She’s looking forward to playing in front of a crazy sellout crowd in the big rink – and so are the underdogs in the final two games.
“I think it’s a good gender equity thing,” Sweden coach Peter Elander said. “Playing in a great building tells the world that women’s hockey is just as important as men’s hockey.”
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