CALGARY — Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team has less experience than two previous editions, but believes it has the speed and skill defend the gold medal in Sochi, Russia.
The 21-player roster that will attempt to win a fourth consecutive Olympic gold in women’s hockey was finalized Monday after the release of three players.
The 2014 squad includes a dozen players who beat the U.S. women 2-0 in the 2010 final in Vancouver. The 2010 and 2006 squads each carried over 14 players from the previous Winter Games.
“We’re a little bit younger in the experience department,” admitted forward Hayley Wickenheiser.
“We’ve very similar in the type of style we’re going to play — a tight forechecking style and trying to counteract with a lot of speed. We have a little bit more offensive depth on the back end than in 2010 so we’ll be counting on them to jump into the attack.
“Goaltending is as good or better. Maybe a little bit more depth overall.”
Canada opens defence of the gold Feb. 8 in Sochi, Russia, against Switzerland. The final is Feb. 20 at the Bolshoy Ice Dome.
Edmonton’s Shannon Szabados and Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., return in goal with Genevieve Lacasse of Kingston, Ont., making her Olympic debut.
Montreal’s Catherine Ward and Meaghan Mikkelson of St. Albert, Alta., are the only two defenders returning from the 2010 squad. They’re joined by Jocelyne Larocque of St. Anne, Man., Lauriane Rougeau of Beaconsfield, Que., Laura Fortino of Hamilton and Tara Watchorn of Newcastle, Ont.
Women’s hockey made its Olympic debut in 1998 with the U.S winning the inaugural gold and Canada the next three titles.
Wickenheiser and Jayna Hefford of Kingston, Ont., will play for Canada in their fifth Olympics, with Wickenheiser also participating in the 2000 Summer Games in softball. Three-time Olympian Caroline Ouellette of Montreal also adds experience up front.
Meghan Agosta-Marciano of Ruthven, Ont., Rebecca Johnston of Sudbury, Ont., Jennifer Wakefield of Pickering, Ont., Gillian Apps of Unionville, Ont., Haley Irwin of Thunder Bay, Ont., Toronto’s Natalie Spooner and Marie-Philip Poulin of Beauceville, Que., have worn the Maple Leaf in previous Olympics or world championships.
But Melodie Daoust of Valleyfield, Que., made the Olympic roster despite zero previous experience on Canada’s national team.
The 21-year-old beat out forwards Vicki Bendus of Wasaga Beach, Ont., and Bailey Bram of Ste. Anne, who were released Sunday along with defenceman Courtney Birchard of Mississauga, Ont.
“I cried because I was so happy,” Daoust said. “Coming here, I had nothing to lose. I was coming here to learn and give the best I could every day. I just wanted to make this team so bad.”
Twenty-seven players were invited to try out for the women’s team. They held a month-long boot camp in B.C. in the spring and began training full time in Calgary in August.
They’ve played over 30 games against international women’s teams and against males in the Alberta Midget Hockey League.
Winnipeg forward Jenelle Kohanchuk and defencemen Tessa Bonhomme of Sudbury, Ont., and Brigette Lacquette of Waterhen, Man., were released in November.
It’s been a week and a half of upheaval for the Canadian women. The man hired by Hockey Canada over a year ago to coach them in Sochi abruptly resigned Dec. 12.
Dan Church said there was a lack of confidence in his ability to do the job, but didn’t specify whether it was players or management who told him that.
Former NHL player and current coach Kevin Dineen was a rush hire less than a week ago. The Toronto native was fired by the Florida Panthers last month.
Since Church’s departure, Canada lost to archrival U.S. 5-1 in a game without a head coach and 4-1 last Friday with Dineen behind the bench for the first time.
“I have a strong opinion on what their strengths are as players and how they can best help us have team success,” Dineen said.
“I think we have a real good balance, some skill players and some skill on the back end. We have strong goaltending and we also have some size to be a physical presence and compete in one-on-one situations.
“I think the balance is there and now it’s a matter of finding some roles and finding chemistry within this team and finding our line combinations.”
Dineen relied on the opinions of assistants Danielle Goyette and Lisa Haley as well as general manager Melody Davidson in determining which players he released “but I was the one who delivered the message and had the final say,” he said.
The women have a three-day break before in St. Paul, Minn., for another game versus the U.S. on Saturday. The finale of their six-game exhibition series against the Americans is Monday in Toronto.
Between games, travel and the holiday break, it will be another week before Dineen gets sustained time with his new team.
“These days off have been built in to the schedule and I’m very respectful of that,” he said. “I know that I’m losing some quality ice time with our players, but in the long run we feel that’s going to be beneficial.
“It hurts me in the short term, but in the long run I feel we’re heading in the right direction.”
Dineen says he will name his team captains at a later date. Wickenheiser has worn the ’C’ for every major tournament since 2007.
Canada’s all-time leading scorer intends to play Saturday in St. Paul. She’s been sidelined with a lower-body injury suffered in the first period Dec. 12.
Poulin, who scored both goals for Canada in the 2010 final, has played only a handful of games this winter because of a troublesome high ankle sprain.
Dineen says Poulin is close to returning, but did not say if she will play in the next two games against the U.S.
A 10-player altercation in the final minute of last Friday’s game was the second game the Canadian and U.S. women have thrown punches at each other this fall.
Ten fighting majors and a string of other infractions were handed out in Grand Forks, N.D. The two teams also fought in October in the series-opening game in Burlington, Vt.
Dineen intends to speak to his players about keeping their cool, particularly because the U.S. women are potent on the power-play. He doesn’t want them fighting.
“I’m not a fan of it,” he said. “I think it’s unnecessary. I don’t think it’s a great reflection of the game. I would strongly suspect it will be the last we’ll see of that.”