Canadian women's hockey begins Beijing 2022 prep with exhibitions against U.S.

The Canadian women's hockey team enters the Olympic season as reigning world champion after defeating the United States in the gold-medal game in August. Both teams resume their Beijing 2022 preparation in earnest this week with a pair of exhibition games that hold importance for players looking to earn their spot.

Teams to play pair of games in Pennsylvania, Connecticut this week

Canada forward Sarah Nurse, left, skates past Alex Carpenter of the United States during Game 4 of the 2020 Rivalry Series at Rogers Arena. (Rich Lam/Getty Images)

For the first time in 10 years, the Canadian women's hockey team enters the Olympic season as reigning world champion.

With its 3-2 overtime victory in August, Canada reclaimed the title that had eluded it since 2012 ― breaking a six-year streak of American dominance in tournament competition. 

Both teams resume their Olympic preparation in earnest this week, with a pair of games in Allentown, Pa., and Hartford, Conn. These will be the first of many meetings through to late December, and a key test on the road to Beijing. While the series may officially be an exhibition, these games are high-stakes, with players battling to earn their spots and vie for gold in 2022.

"As we go through this year we want to play best-on-best competition, so the series against the U.S. are pretty vital and integral to our process," Canadian forward Sarah Nurse said. "The U.S. is our biggest rival so when we get the opportunity to play them and put our preparation and our practice to work, it's super important for when we get to the Olympics."

WATCH | Examining Canada's women's hockey team's impact on, off ice:

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Both the Canadian and American players spend the months leading up to the Games in an extended training camp known as centralization (or residency, south of the border.)

For the remainder of the calendar year, each country's aspiring Olympians will train together and compete in a slate of exhibitions in the hopes of cracking their team's final 23-player roster.

Twenty-nine Canadians have been gathered in Calgary since July, preparing first for August's world championship and now for Beijing. Over the past month they've played a handful of contests against junior A men's teams from the BCHL and AJHL, but this upcoming series will mark the squad's first international games since the worlds.

The IIHF allowed only 25 athletes per country at that event, so the exhibition series also provides greater roster flexibility to integrate all of Canada's available players.

"We set our sights out to win two gold medals this year and we've already won one at the world championship," Nurse said. "Now that we have our full group back together, we're back preparing and we're very confident in ourselves."

The Americans, for their part, took a break after the tournament before regrouping in Minnesota in early October. Along with regular training and skills work, they've scrimmaged against boys' teams and played a three-game series against an all-star roster from the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association.

"Obviously worlds didn't go the way we wanted,"  U.S. defender Lee Stecklein said. "So [we're] really figuring out what we can work on immediately to improve for these upcoming games and then, over the long stretch, figuring out what our team needs to do and how we need to come together to find a way to be ready to go for the Olympics."

Canada's Sarah Nurse, right, and the United States' Lee Stecklein fight for the puck during the women's gold-medal game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. (Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images)

Though everyone will have to earn their place, this series will be a particularly valuable showcase for the young players who didn't compete at worlds.

Forwards Jessie Eldridge and Julia Gosling sat out for Canada, and neither has a lengthy international resume to fall back on. Rookie netminder Kristen Campbell has already secured her place in Beijing, but she's yet to tend goal for the senior team. American defender Anna Wilgren is in a similar position, having never suited up for her country.

Canada's relatively inexperienced defence performed admirably in August, but they also weren't heavily tested. That was due to strong possession play in Calgary, which the team will aim to maintain.

Defence wins championships

But if their opponents do manage to sustain offensive pressure, the Canadians' response will be a focal point.

"We didn't really have to play a ton in our own end of the ice [at worlds], so that's definitely something that our coaches have pushed us and wanted to work on," Nurse said. "At the end of the day defence is what wins you championships, so we want to be excellent in our own end of the ice."

But as much as these matches are an essential tool of pre-Olympic evaluation, their importance also comes down to a classic, heated rivalry.

"They are great prep for the Olympics," Stecklein said. "But at the end of the day, anytime you're on the ice with Canada, it's still a battle and it still feels like ― and is ― the most important game of the year at that moment in time."


Kirsten Whelan has covered women's hockey since 2015, from the youth level through to professional and international competition. She is based in Montreal.

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