Canada’s bid for fifth gold begins with 28

CALGARY — Half the players invited to try out for Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team know what’s coming. The other half don’t.

Jillian Saulnier has heard veterans talk about meltdowns during the gruelling six months it takes to choose the Olympic team and prepare to battle for gold.

“Now we laugh about it,” forward Marie-Philip Poulin said. “We didn’t laugh at that moment.”

Saulnier of Halifax and Poulin of Beauceville, Que., were among the 28 invitees announced Thursday by Hockey Canada.

Those who don’t live in Calgary will be there by Aug. 1 to train full time and play more than 50 games before the Winter Olympics next February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“I’ve heard some stories, pretty good stories honestly,” Saulnier said. ”It just seems to be like the time when the girls really come together and find out what really works to be successful.”

Those chosen will attempt to extend the country’s run of gold in women’s hockey to five straight.

But first, the 28 candidates will participate in a 20-day boot camp in June to prepare them for the rigours of what’s called centralization.

“I know the group of people we have selected are warriors,” head coach Laura Schuler said. “I know we have the right people in terms of our centralization roster. We have the depth, we have the talent.”

Countries are now allowed 23 players — three goaltenders and 20 skaters — on their women’s teams compared to the previous limit of three and 18.

Canada’s Olympic team is expected to be named in late December.

The U.S. has won seven of the last eight world championships beating Canada in overtime in the finals of the most recent two.

Canada’s Pyeongchang hopefuls were selected by Schuler, assistant coaches Dwayne Gylywoychuk and Troy Ryan and Hockey Canada general manager of national team programs Melody Davidson.

Players were chosen based on their previous performances with the national team, and their club or university teams.

“Difficult doesn’t even do it justice,” Davidson said. “It was agonizing.

“We just wanted the most talent available. Scoring goals is a big thing. We’ve lost twice in overtime.”

Poulin scored both the equalizer and overtime winner in 2014, when Canada rallied from a two-goal deficit with less than four minutes to go to beat the U.S. and claim gold again.

She and Brianne Jenner of Oakville, Ont., who also scored to spark the comeback, were among 14 alumni from that victorious squad summoned back for another shot at Olympic gold.

“It’s long season and the stakes are very high,” Jenner said. “This is everyone’s dream to play in the Olympics. As much as we’re coming together, we’re also battling for spots.”

Sisters Sarah and Amy Potomak of Aldergrove, B.C., defenceman Micah Hart of Saanichton, B.C., Saulnier and Blayre Turnbull of Stellarton, N.S., make this centralization roster the most coast to coast of any before it.

“It’s a tribute to the work the branches are doing, the buy-in on female hockey,” Davidson said. “Every province has somebody dedicated to female hockey.”

Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados, Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., and Ann-Renee Desbiens of La Malbaie, Que., are Canada’s three goaltenders battling for coveted Olympic starts.

But Hockey Canada took the unusual step of naming two alternate goalies: Erica Howe of Orleans, Ont., and Emerance Maschmeyer of Bruderheim, Alta.

“The reality is there could be injuries, they could get sick,” Davidson explained. “We wanted them to make sure they kept training and preparing just in case we needed them on any type of recall.”

The women will again play 30 games against midget-triple A boys’ teams in Alberta as they have in previous Olympic seasons.

Those games simulate the pace of games against the U.S. and give the Canada an advantage over other countries who don’t get that type of competition.

“The midget league is our bread and butter,” Davidson said. “The buy-in from all those teams and coaches, they want to help us win a gold medal.

“They do whatever we need whenever we play them, which is terrific.”

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