Canada blanks U.S. to win gold in women's hockey

Marie-Philip Poulin scored twice in the first period and Shannon Szabados made 28 saves as Team Canada beat the United States 2-0 to win the gold medal in women's hockey at the Vancouver Olympics on Thursday. It is Team Canada's third consecutive gold medal.

Well after they mobbed conquering goaltender Shannan Szabados in triumph. Well after they cried, hugged and rejoiced as Kool and the Gang’s Celebration blared over the Canada Hockey Place sound system.

Well after Canadian IOC member Dick Pound slipped gold medals around their necks. Well after they sang O Canada in unison and finished revealing their thoughts to reporters, many members of the Canadian women’s hockey team returned to the ice surface with magnums of champagne to pose for pictures and keep partying.

More than 90 minutes had elapsed since they beat the rival United States 2-0 to win a third consecutive gold medal, but the Canadian women didn't want this to end. It had been too long since they last beat the Americans in a meaningful game. The past two world championships had seen Canada lose to the U.S., and that stung.

"I was standing there on the blue-line after and I thought to myself, 'I can't believe I got a shutout,'" said Szabados, who made 28 saves. "But I would have been satisfied with a 9-8 score, as long as we won."

Szabados was particularly brilliant in the second period. Eighteen-year-old whiz kid Marie-Philip Poulin of Quebec City, the youngest player on Canada and its fourth-line centre, scored twice in the first period. Then the game was turned over to Szabados, who made half her stops in the middle frame.

"She was like a rock," Canadian defenceman Colleen Sostorics said.

Canadian coach Melody Davidson could have started any of her three standout goalies. Charline Labonte and Kim St-Pierre are the others. But Davidson made the right choice in the stingy Szabados.

The 23-year-old Edmonton native is a heck of a story. Of course, she made headlines earlier in her career when she played against the boys in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and later in a game with the Tri-City Americans in the WHL. She also played minor hockey growing up in Edmonton with Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Dion Phaneuf.

She still has plans to one day play pro hockey against men. But first things first — she yearned for an Olympic gold medal with the women.

"I looked up in the stands and saw a sign that said "Proud to be Canadian" and that's what I am today," said Szabados, who plays with the men at Grant MacEwen College in Edmonton.

Before the Vancouver Games, each Canadian player dedicated their Olympic effort to a person close to them. The decision wasn't difficult for Szabados. She always has former junior teammate Matt Cook on her mind. He lost a leg to cancer and his fight has been an inspiration to the women's team goalie.

During the Olympic tournament, Szabados taped FLM on the back of her mask, which stands for Fight Like Matt.

"I talked to him this week," she said. "I'm always thinking about him."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Wayne Gretzky, Canadian snow-cross gold medallist Maelle Ricker, actor Michael J. Fox, defenceman Scott Niedermayer and most of the Canadian men's team as well as head coach Mike Babcock and his assistant coach, Lindy Ruff, were among the exuberant crowd of 16,805 at Canada Hockey Place.

Some wondered if this would be the last hurrah for 31-year-old Hayley Wickenheiser, who with teammates Jennifer Botterill, Becky Kellar and Jayna Hefford has played in four Olympics. But Wickenheiser indicated she likely will stick around for a fifth Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.

"I think I could have another Olympics in me," Wickenheiser said. "It's very demanding, hard on my family, I have a young son. We'll see. But I'm really forward to taking it year by year and see how the program evolves."

Because of the disappointment at the past two world championships, the Canadian women changed their preparation for the Vancouver Olympics.

They held a 3½-week boot camp in Dawson Creek, B.C. There, each day began with a long-distance run every morning at 7 a.m. and between weight training, yoga sessions, kickboxing workouts and on-ice instruction, their day didn't finish until 9:30 p.m.

The Canadian women also engaged in an ambitious 31-game schedule, beginning in late September, against Alberta boys midget teams. This was 10 more games than they played against Alberta boys teams in preparation for the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy.

The commitment and dedication obviously paid off. They won five of six exhibition games against the U.S. before Olympics, then extended their Olympic win streak to 15 games. The Canadians outscored the opposition 48-2 in their five matches in Vancouver.

"I just have to give credit to our preparation," Wickenheiser said. "We stuck together, believed in ourselves and everyone played hard."

Wickenheiser on Rogge's comments

Before the women's gold-medal final, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warned women's ice hockey officials that the overall competitiveness of women's hockey had to improve or the sport would no longer be part of the Olympics.

"There is a discrepancy. Everyone agrees with that," Rogge said. "This may be the investment period for women's ice hockey.

"I would personally give them more time to grow, but there must be a period of improvement. We cannot continue without improvement."

Wickenheiser reacted to the remarks.

"It doesn't hurt," she said. "When you just pay attention to the game every four years, that's what you see. It would be nice for people like that to really get involved in other countries and push for the game to develop.

"I think we're right at the edge of moving to the next level. I think we're in good shape and Canada and the U.S. will push the rest of the world," Wickenheiser added.

"I think that's up to the rest of the world to put some resources into their federations. We've demonstrated that women can play hockey at a very high level and there's no reason it should be taken out of the Games. We commit, we train, we have a lot of passion, we're full-time athletes, so it's up the rest of the world to catch up.

"It's not as easy as it looks, trust me."