Antsy Canadian women's hockey team finally gets on ice in Sochi

Three days after arriving in Sochi, Canada's women's hockey players couldn't wait to get on the ice for their first pre-Olympic practice.

“Everyone was getting pretty antsy,” defenceman Catherine Ward said. “We wanted to get out there. We were sitting by the boards waiting to finally step on.”

It finally happened Tuesday as Canada spent about an hour shaking off the effects from their journey to Russia and the rust that had built up from a few days off. Even though goaltender Shannon Szabados said this was the longest the team had gone not practising since August, coach Kevin Dineen considered it a smart decision to wait.

“There was a little itch by us as a staff to get the team on the ice, but at the end of it, we felt that it was time well spent off the ice getting acclimated to the area,” Dineen said. “It was a good day one for us on the ice.”

If past history is any indication, there will be a lot of good days in the next few weeks for Canada, which has consistently been favoured in these tournaments. Barring something unexpected, the United States is the only real competition, and even some of Canada's recent exhibition struggles against the U.S. hasn't lowered the expectation.

“We expect from ourself to win,” captain Caroline Oullette said. “It's no different than any other years and every other Olympics. That's what every athlete that is here wants and that's why we're here.”

Szabados said it was the same level of pressure as Vancouver four years ago because “as a hockey player playing for Canada, I think your country expects gold just based on the history of Canadian hockey, as they should.”

But there are some more difficult circumstances this time, most notably switching coaches from Dan Church to Dineen two months before the start of the Olympics. Oullette doesn't consider that a major disadvantage because Canada, which is looking for a fourth straight gold medal, kept the same system through the transition.

“I don't think Kevin changed so many things that we couldn't adjust,” she said. “I think that he learned what we were doing and he just made some tweaks here and there.”

Those tweaks included using exhibition games not as measuring sticks for success as much as milestones on the road to Sochi. Losses didn't matter as long as Dineen felt that his team was moving closer to being ready for Sochi and Canada's first game, which comes Saturday vs. Switzerland.

“If we had a game, whether it was against the U.S. or against the midget boys, we were not concerned about the outcome,” Dineen said. “We would do our preparation, meaning conditioning, that we would never do at the NHL level. We were doing it because it was going to have this cumulative effect that's going to come into play in a positive (way) and get us at our peak in the next couple days.”

The real goal is for Canada to be at its peak going into playing its top rival, the United States, and then obviously when a medal is on the line. But Ward knows that Switzerland's goalie can stand on her head and that Finland, also in the group, has improved drastically.

Dineen doesn't want his players — or reporters — to take those teams lightly, saying his team has a “healthy dose of respect” for Switzerland and Finland.

“They've got some great individual players, they're very strong in net, they're very formidable opponents,” Dineen said. “We are certainly not and I hope you all aren't discounting those as opponents. It's very easy to build up into this incredible rivalry between the U.S. and Canada that's gone on for years and years. But there's some business to take care of before then.”

That business started with Tuesday's practice, which took place without injured centre Haley Irwin. Dineen didn't offer an update on her condition, but Brianne Jenner skated in her place and could do so again if Irwin's not ready to face Switzerland.

“Hopefully we (get) Haley Irwin back soon so that she can centre our line,” said Oullette, who would be a linemate of Irwin's. “She's one of our best players. She's a great mix of skills and grit, one of the best players for that in my opinion. We're certainly missing her, but we want her back healthy at 100 per cent so that she can really help our team. So we'll be patient.”

Patience also might have to be in the cards for Szabados and fellow goalies Genevieve Lacasse and Charline Labonte, who are competing to be the starter. Dineen let on that he knows who will start the Olympic opener but wouldn't reveal his decision nor commit to any plans beyond that.

“I've pretty well come to a good consensus who's going to start on our opening night, so we'll run with that,” he said. “Nothing's set in stone, but we're excited that we have so many great options to use.”

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