If the Canadian women’s hockey team wins Olympic gold in February, the men of the Alberta Midget Hockey League will share in some of the glory.
Canada will have played some 30 games against the men’s league by the time the 2010 Winter Games open Feb. 12 in Vancouver.
It’s a different type of hockey than they’re accustomed to and the Canadians are hoping it will help lift them to Olympic gold.
“We’ll be asking for a medal,” Calgary Royals head coach Ryan Hilderman jokes.
Canada is currently 9-5 against teams from the AMHL. The games battle-harden the women for the Olympics by providing consistent, high-level competition. No other country’s women have that advantage.
Canada’s archrival, the U.S., scheduled a few exhibition games against junior men’s and high school boys teams this winter, but far fewer than the Canadian women will play.
If Canada defends its Olympic title, it will be in large part because they played so many games against boys between the ages of 15 and 18.
Both sides have had to adjust to a different style of game.
When facing off against women, the men must continually remind themselves they can’t throw a shoulder, hip or elbow on Jayna Hefford or Cherie Piper coming through the neutral zone. The women step up with a more physical brand of hockey than they are often allowed to play in the international female game.
It’s a hockey hybrid that’s harmonious for the men and the women as they all walk away from the games feeling they got something out of it.
The Midget AAA players who rely more on brute force than skill are suddenly exposed against the women. They are pressed into playing a game of speed, passing and puck skills. Defence is more about positioning body and stick than sending an opponent flying.
Those whose games lean more towards physical intimidation than skating and puck skills find they can’t keep up with the play and end up in the penalty box more often than not.
“The physicality is a big adjustment because that’s a big part of our game,” says Kieran O’Neil, captain of the AMHL’s Calgary Flames. “We’re hard on the forecheck, but the girls are a fast puck-moving team. It’s good for us because we have to work on a lot of puck skills and stuff. It’s hard to adjust to for sure.”
The Canadian women played a similar schedule of games against the AMHL in the months leading up to the 2006 Olympic in Turin, Italy. The difference now is there are two points on the line for the AMHL teams when they play the women, so the games have playoff implications in their league.
Also, lining up across from Hayley Wickenheiser is all new to the current crop of Midget players as they weren’t in the league four years ago.
“It’s kind of fun because it kind of goes back to the shinny games a bit,” says Royals forward Brad Buckingham. “You’re not worried about getting run through the boards and all that. It’s still high-paced, so it’s a lot of fun. It’s a new thing for us.”
The body contact is the grey area in these games. While there’s no open-ice hitting, the men and women crash and bang along the walls and in the corners for the puck.
The usual competitive gestures – pushing each other out of the goalie crease when the whistle blows, an unfriendly shove behind the officials’ backs on the way to the players’ benches – are still there. There’s just less of it than in an all-male game.
While the pace is intense for both sexes, games against the men tend to be less nasty than games against the U.S. women, according to Canadian forward Gina Kingsbury.
“The emotions are a little higher, so against the Americans there’s a little more dirtiness going on,” she explains. “The boys keep it pretty clean in their body contact.”
Where the women have the edge on the Midget players is in experience as some players on the national team are a decade, or more, older. The Flames turned the puck over several times in a recent 5-2 loss.
“We are able to cash in the boys’ inexperience because they make some mistakes the U.S. team wouldn’t make,” forward Caroline Ouellette points out.
But the men are quick in all aspects of the game, their reaches are longer and they have the size to muscle the women off the puck along the boards. After losing to Canada twice in a pre-season tournament, the Royals beat the women 4-2 in their first league meeting.
“I think getting beat twice … it was an eye-opener getting outskated and losing races to pucks and stuff like that,” Hilderman says. “It was good for our guys.
“The girls keep coming and they don’t quit so it’s great. We take just as much from these games as we do other games.”
The women appreciate the adjustments their male opponents make to their game.
“Let’s face it, they can hurt us, but they’re smart enough to know ’Hey, we’re helping out Team Canada to win in February,’ ” says forward Meghan Agosta. “They understand it.”
Adds Ouellette: “I think they’re the best preparation we can get. I don’t know what else we could do that would be better for us.”
Evidence of what these games do for the Canadian women became clear this winter. Canada was on a 2-6 run versus the U.S. in September.
Since then, the Canadians are 3-1 versus their archrival, including beating the Americans in the final of the 4 Nations Cup in November.
The difference now is the women are constantly rehearsing what it’s like to be down a goal or two, or even up a goal or two, against high-level competition.
“All of those situations are really important for us to experience during the year so we know how we respond and how we do in those situations,” Kingsbury says. “Come February, if we are in that kind of pickle, we know if we’ve done it against the boys, we can do it here. It’s really crucial for us.”
The Midget players will be interested in watching the Canadian women at the Olympics because of their on-ice relationship.
“I helped them prepare and bring out the best in them,” says Buckingham. “So I would feel a little bit of pride in helping them, that I did something to help them win.”