Canada will go with a mostly veteran team when it attempts to win a fifth straight gold medal in women’s hockey at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea in February.
One day after the United States cut two veterans in Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek, Canada announced Friday its roster will have 14 players who helped win a gold medal at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Canada’s team includes veterans such as Meghan Agosta, who will participate in her fourth Olympic Games, as well as goalie Shannon Szabados, Meaghan Mikkelson, Haley Irwin, Rebecca Johnston and Marie-Philip Poulin, who will each attend their third Olympics.
Lest one get the idea Canada is sending an over-the-hill gang to Korea, eight players — Ann-Renée Desbiens, Renata Fast, Brigette Lacquette, Bailey Bram, Emily Clark, Jillian Saulnier, Laura Stacey (the great-granddaughter of Hockey Hall of Famer King Clancy) and Blayre Turnbull — will make their Olympic debuts.
The newcomers will add a boost of youth, speed and enthusiasm while the returnees have a solid understanding of what lies ahead.
“Wearing the maple leaf, we have a lot of pressure,” Agosta said. “A lot of people have high expectations of us, but we believe in ourselves and in our abilities; not only as individuals, but as a team. We’re ready. We have a very, very skilled team here and we’re excited to be able to be able to continue on this amazing journey that we started.”
Team Canada has been centralized in Calgary since early August. The squad has been playing in a boys’ midget triple-A league while also facing off in six exhibition games against the American Olympic team. Canada dropped the first game of the series 5-2 on Oct. 22, but bounced back to win five in a row, including a 2-1 overtime victory on Sunday in Edmonton.
Canada’s five straight exhibition wins helped ease the sting of a 5-1 defeat to the United States in the gold-medal game at the Four Nations Cup in Tampa on Nov. 12. They also showed the gap may be narrowing between the two teams since the Americans’ earlier dominance.
In Pyeongchang, Canada will compete in Group A along with the United States, Finland and the Olympic Athletes from Russia team. Group B features Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and South Korea. While Sweden, Finland and Russia have made strides in recent years and are more competitive, it truly remains a two-team race for gold between Canada and the United States.
Until Canada’s recent success, many were calling the United States the team to beat in Korea. The Americans, who won the very first Olympic gold medal in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, have won the past four world championship tournaments and three Four Nations Cups. They are fast, aggressive in the offensive zone and have dependable goaltending.
They are also very hungry for Olympic success. Team USA captain Meghan Duggan has said that losing in the gold-medal game at the Olympics left a bad taste in her mouth. The Americans held a 2-0 lead with less than two minutes to play in the third period in 2014, but lost 3-2 in overtime.
“It’s no secret we came up short from the goal we wanted to achieve,” Duggan said. “It’s gold or bust for us.”
“I think it’s going to change,” added teammate Breanna Decker. “I know the outcome will be different.”
Szabados is expected to be Canada’s starting goaltender, having been in net in each of the past two Olympic gold-medal games. If she falters, Canada has faith that Geneviève Lacasse, making her second trip to the Olympics, and the rookie Desbiens can get the job done.
“We have three great goalies,” said Team Canada coach Laura Schuler. “We can rely on any one of them.”
Mikkelson anchors a defence that includes returnees Laura Fortino, Lauriane Rougeau and Jocelyne Larocque as well as rookies Fast and Lacquette. Among the defenders, only Larocque has scored a goal in Olympic competition. She is also the team’s most physical defender.
Up front, Canada is led by Poulin, who will most likely be named team captain. The 26-year-old scored the gold medal-winning goal in each of the past two Olympic Games. A dependable two-way performer, much of Poulin value comes from the example she sets for her teammates on and off the ice.
Agosta is the oldest player on the team at 33 years, one month and six days, and she brings a wealth of experience, having scored 15 goals and 23 points in 15 games at the past three Olympics.
With three goals and 11 points in 10 games in the past two Olympics, the speedy Johnston will be a go-to forward for Canada. The hard-shooting Jennifer Wakefield, who has played pro hockey in Sweden the past two seasons, is a power forward who has a huge offensive upside.
If Canada has a wild card, it could be Natalie Spooner. The team’s biggest player at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Spooner is tremendously quick and has a nose for the net, having scored two goals and four points at her first Games in Sochi.