The benefits of playing the Red Deer Optimist Chiefs outweighed the final results.
Then again the Canadian National Women’s Olympic Team head coach Kevin Dineen wasn’t about to dismiss a 2-0 loss to the Chiefs before a near capacity crowd at the Arena Tuesday.
“That wasn’t a good snap shot of our way of playing, but we played a very good team out there tonight,” he said. “That’s one of the best teams we’ve faced since I’ve been here. They played an up tempo game and we faced the kind of pressure we’ll see when we’re overseas. We can work on a lot of things in practice but the reality is it’s hard to duplicate what you get against competition.
“We’ve played a lot of games against the Americans and Team Canada’s belief is that these games are helping us to be game ready.”
The Canadian squad is less than a month away from the Sochi Olympics and not only are they building as a team, but they’re still learning some of Dineen’s philosophies.
Dineen was fired by the Florida Panthers on Nov. 8 and on Dec. 17 was named head coach of Team Canada, replacing Dan Church, who resigned.
The 50-year-old Dineen doesn’t use the change in coaching as an excuse for how the Canadians have played, or will play.
“It’s always a good excuse for players trying to learn a new system, but for the most part this is a well-oiled machine,” he said. “We made a few adjustments, but they’re a very enthusiastic bunch and very sincere and made my job easy. There is a lot of talented players and for the most part I just let them run.”
Canadian team captain Hayley Wickenheiser agrees.
“He has a lot of experience at the international and NHL level and while it has taken him a while to get used to the women’s game. We’re pleased to have him,” she said.
Dineen did coach women’s hockey while he was coaching Portland Pirates of the AHL.
“I coached my daughter’s elite spring team and they had a lot of quality players and I found it a positive experience. The big difference I find is that the women don’t shoot the puck as hard as the men, so there are a few adjustments, but overall the complete level and intensity is the same.”
The Canadians haven’t had a great deal of success of late, both against the Americans and the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
“We’re slowly getting to be where we need to be,” said Dineen. “We have a little ways to go and we’ll certainly need to be better than we were tonight. I’m confident we’ll be ready.”
The teams battled through two scoreless periods Tuesday, thanks mainly to the brilliant goaltending of Team Canada’s Christine Labonte, who made 20 saves in the first period and 14 in the second. Overall she faced 43 shots.
It wasn’t until 5:13 of the third period that Trey deGraaf was able to beat the veteran netminder with a shot that bounced off a body and flipped over her shoulder. Brad Makofka put the finishing touches on the scoring with an empty net goal with 49.1 seconds remaining.
Jayden Sittler made 12 saves for the shutout. The only shot to beat him was by Wickenheiser in a shoot out. Jeff de Wit and Gabe Bast beat Labonte out of the five Red Deer shooters.
“Without goaltending it would have been four or five nothing,” said Wickenheiser. “Labonte kept us in it, but we couldn’t sustain any pressure. But it’s good to be pushed. The pace of play was good for us as they’re bigger, have longer reach and the speed and puck movement gets us ready for what we’re going to face.”
Wickenheiser has been through the Olympic preparation several times and can compare this team to those in the past.
“It’s similar. We do have a little more inexperience on the blueline, but we have great goaltending and most of our experience is up front. We have nine new players, but they’re settling in and getting used to the pressure situations.
“It’s been up and down for us this season, but it’s a matter of keeping our wits about us and being mentally tough and bring our best when it matters the most.”
Both Wickenheiser and Chiefs head coach Doug Quinn were impressed with the crowd.
“This is the heartland of hockey,” Wickenheiser said. “It’s such a great hockey town and we appreciate the support we receive both times we played here. And we appreciate the way the guys (Chiefs) carry themselves.”
“It was great to play them.,” said Quinn. “There was so much excitement in the community and the rink was as full as I’ve seen it in a couple of years. For us to play them and then watch them on TV is exciting. They’re Olympic athletes with pro coaches and for us to play them and to learn, develop and grow is good for the team.”
Quinn liked everything he saw from his troops.
“It’s a tough game for the kids to play as they have to adjust to the body contact, but at the end of the day I was happy with the effort. We worked hard and played very good defence. We didn’t give up much and had chances, but their goaltender was outstanding.”
The Chiefs are on the road or their next six league games and don’t return home until Feb. 16 against Grande Prairie.