Canadian women's hockey team ready to roll again
Defending champs to play over half their games in Alberta
The majority of the players and staff on Canada's Olympic women's hockey team uprooted their lives for the next six months to pursue another gold medal.
Forward Megan Agosta-Marciano's marriage became a long-distance one, as did head coach Dan Church's, when the team officially began preparation Tuesday in Calgary for the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
Assistant coach Lisa Haley moved with her husband and son from Toronto. Goaltender Shannon Szabados's husband Alex has relocated with her from Edmonton.
Of the 27 players vying for 21 spots on the Olympic team, 24 live outside Alberta.
They've left their support networks, friends and family behind. The seven university players invited will give up a whole year of school whether they are named to the Canadian team in late December or not.
For those chosen by Church to wear the Maple Leaf in Sochi, it'll be another gruelling two months to the Olympic gold-medal game Feb. 20. The Canadian women will attempt to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
"It's always a huge commitment, but this is what we love to do," Agosta-Marciano said Tuesday. "We might have to make sacrifices by being away from our loved ones. At the end of the day, it's totally worth it."
Three goaltenders, nine defencemen and 15 forwards have opened what Hockey Canada calls "the centralized year."
The Canadian women will play between 55 and 60 games this winter, including eight against archrival United States. The Canadians will train and practice together almost every day at the WinSport Athletic and Ice Complex in Alberta.
"This is the most fun of the four-year cycle because we're a pro team," captain Hayley Wickenheiser said. "We get to train and act like professional players every single day. For me, this is the most fun year out of the four."
The Canadian team will have a pre-Olympic camp Sept. 1-11 in Sochi, where they'll face the Russian women in a pair of exhibition games.
For Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford, this is the fifth time they'll live through the hockey hothouse life that is Olympic preparation. It's the fourth time for Montreal forward Caroline Ouellette.
But the national team experienced unprecedented turnover after winning gold in Vancouver in 2010. Eleven players will experience centralization for the first time.
The players will be constantly under the microscope of coaches and management. Six will be released before the end of December.
"It's more of a marathon this year than a sprint and we need people who are going to be able to come and consistently perform at a high level," Church said.
"I think that's one of the things we'll see over the first few months here, who can handle that? Who can be in and out of the lineup and how they're going to handle that in terms of practices and games?"
As they have in three previous Olympic preparation periods, the Canadian women will play over half their games in the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
Male midget triple-A opposition approximates the pace of games against the U.S. women.
The AMHL gives Canada a competitive edge at the Olympic Games because those games are dress rehearsals for what is expected to be another gold-medal final against the American women.
"I don't think anyone else can put together the competitive season we can and it's all because of the midget league's buy-in and the partnership with them," said Melody Davidson, Hockey Canada's general manager of women's programs.
Church is expected to name six defencemen and a dozen forwards to his Olympic team. He can take all three of his goalies to Sochi, but there will be internal competition among them for coveted Olympic starts.
Szabados played her way from No. 3 to No. 1 in the months leading up to the 2010 Winter Games.
"The only three people on the team right now who know they're going to Sochi are the goaltenders," Church said. "It's going to be stiff competition in that position. So while they know they're going, it's really about competing for who is going to be in the net in the gold-medal game."
Church's wife Regan will remain in Toronto, where he coaches the York University women in non-Olympic years. They intend to fly back and forth during breaks in the Canadian team's schedule. Church has moved into his aunt's basement in Calgary.
Agosta-Marciano's husband Marco works for the American Hockey League's Hamilton Bulldogs. She'll live with forward Haley Irwin in Calgary this winter.
Players and staff who don't live in Calgary arranged their accommodation in May prior to the floods that swept through Calgary and other Southern Alberta communities.
Most were unaffected by the flooding, but defender Meaghan Mikkelson and her husband Scott, who live in Calgary, were forced out of their home for a month before they could return in late July.
Defenceman Catherine Ward and forward Marie-Phillip Poulin, from Montreal and Beauceville, Que., respectively, had to find another place to live. The first-floor apartment near Mikkelson they'd initially intended to take was under flood reconstruction.
Canada and the U.S. have met for gold in the final of every women's world championship and in three of the four Olympic finals.
The Olympic veterans say this next half a year isn't just about playing the American women for gold in February.
"We think about the process it takes to get there," Mikkelson said. "You have that gold medal in the back of your mind, but you know how much work it's going to take in order to be able to step on the ice in that gold-medal game and be your absolute best."