Defence to contribute to offence on Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team

CALGARY — The key component of Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team is fast, skilled defenders who can contribute offensively.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser (centre) looks over at teammate Sarah Vaillancourt (right) during a team photo opportunity after the Canadian women's hockey team for the 2010 Olympics was announced in Calgary

CALGARY — The key component of Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team is fast, skilled defenders who can contribute offensively.

The 21-player roster unveiled Monday includes three young defencemen with considerable offensive upside.

Edmonton’s Meaghan Mikkelson, Montreal’s Catherine Ward and Tessa Bonhomme of Sudbury, Ont., are among seven players on the team who will make their Olympic debuts Feb. 13, when Canada opens defence of the gold medal against Slovakia.

Head coach Melody Davidson, who was also behind the bench at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy, has been cultivating defencemen who can both protect Canada’s end of the ice and generate goals.

“Over the last four years, we’ve been building depth at defence,” Davidson said.

The roster includes familiar faces such as Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon, Sask., Winnipeg’s Jennifer Botterill, Jayna Hefford of Kingston, Ont., and Becky Kellar of Hagersville, Ont., who will all play in their fourth Olympic Games.

Calgary’s Carla MacLeod, named the most valuable player at the world championships earlier this year, is one of the best offensive defenders in the game.

Davidson retained her, Colleen Sostorics of Kennedy, Sask., and Kellar as defencemen from the 2006 squad. Kellar and Sostorics play a more defensive-style of game.

“I look at our defence and I think we’ve got a balance of offensive, mobile defence and the stay-at-home, solid defensive defencemen when you look at Sostorics or Kellar,” said Wickenheiser, who was also named captain Monday.

Davidson released two players Sunday night — forward Jennifer Wakefield of Pickering, Ont., and veteran defenceman Gillian Ferrari of Thornhill, Ont. — to get down to three goaltenders, six defencemen and 12 forwards.

The players will have a short holiday break starting Tuesday before facing the U.S. in exhibition games Dec. 30 in St. Paul, Minn., and Jan. 1 in Ottawa.

“Friday night was our 42nd game and a decision had to be made,” Davidson said. “We wanted everybody to go home at Christmastime knowing what their status was.”

The release of Ferrari, a member of the 2006 squad who is strictly a defensive defenceman, is a sign of what Davidson’s expectations are from her blue-line.

While Canada outscored the opposition 46-2 in Turin, the Americans are a much more explosive team than they were then. Davidson is preparing for a championship game where her side will need to produce goals.

“We need more offence from our back end and that’s why you see some of the players that you do,” Wickenheiser said. “They have good upside, see the ice well, play aggressive. They play fearless sometimes and I thought that’s what we needed from our back end.

“The reality is, when we play the U.S., it comes down to specialty teams and we need to be able to generate more five-on-five offence. They’re going to be a big part of that.”

As of this year, women’s teams are allowed to carry three goaltenders to international tournaments, so Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados, Kim St. Pierre of Chateauguay, Que., and Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., have known for months they’d be part of the Olympic team.

There is suspense at that position, however, as they battle for the right to start in the gold-medal game.

“Goaltenders are about the hot hand and we’ve got quite a few games left here before we have to make a decision as to who our main starter will be,” Davidson said.

Twenty-six players congregated in Calgary on Aug. 2 to try out for the Olympic team. They’re playing a 60-game schedule against international women’s teams and local men’s midget triple-A squads in addition to practising and off-ice training.

The players, who are based at Father David Bauer Arena in Calgary, were introduced at a downtown Calgary hotel Monday.

Many had mixed emotions as they were happy to know they’d be playing in the Olympics, but also sad to see teammates with whom they’d spent weeks cut from the team.

Ferrari, a veteran of the 2006 Olympic team, was a dressing room favourite because she could always be relied on to lighten the mood.

“It’s probably the toughest cut that I’ve seen in all my years,” Wickenheiser said. “That’s a big loss, I think, a big void, that we’re going to have to find a way to fill. I think we’ll regroup and figure it out as we always have.”

Added forward Caroline Ouellette: “I’m not going to lie. A lot of us were crying and we’re thinking about her today.”

Wakefield, who has been sidelined with a broken wrist, was invited to remain with the team as an alternate, but has yet to confirm that she will, according to Davidson. When the 20-year-old is healthy again, she would practise with the Olympic squad as insurance against injury.

Defenders Delaney Collins of Pilot Mound, Man., and Jocelyne Larocque of Ste-Anne., Man., as well as forward Brianne Jenner of Oakville, Ont., were released earlier this month.

The overall age of the 2010 team is 26 years 10 months, while the 2006 team was an even 27 years. The youngest player on the team is 18-year-old forward Marie-Philip Poulin of Beauceville, Que.

“I still don’t realize I’m going there,” Poulin said. “It’s been hard because some hard cuts have been done. We have to keep going and do it for them.”

Kellar, 34, is the oldest and the mother of two young sons. While her husband remained in Ontario to run the family business, her sons and her parents moved with her to Calgary.

”You have your ups and downs during the year as I think we all had being that there was nine defencemen to start the year,“ Kellar said. ”There were definitely moments where you think ’I hope my game is the one that they want.”

Notes: The 21 players on Canada’s roster have combined to play in 94 world championships … Hefford and Ouellette were named alternate captains Monday … The average height and weight of the Canadian team is 5 foot 7 1/2 and 155 pounds.

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