The 2014 Winter Olympics feel within reach for forward Mélodie Daoust and her teammates on Canada's under-18 women's hockey team.
Marie-Philip Poulin, 18, scored both of Canada's goals in a 2-0 win over the U.S. in the Olympic women's hockey final last month in Vancouver.
Poulin played in the world under-18 championship just last year in Fussen, Germany. She was a teammate of Daoust and five other returning players on Canada's roster for the under-18 tournament starting Saturday in Chicago.
Daoust, from Valleyfield, Que., is inspired by Poulin's example to strive for the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, and not bide her time until 2018.
“When you know that you played with her in Füssen, you know she made the Canadian team for the Olympics and she scored, that proves to us we can do the same,” Daoust said. “That's really my dream to make it in the next (Olympics).”
That dream, however, will take a backseat to winning Canada's first gold medal in the world under-18 tournament.
The U.S. captured the first two women's under-18 world titles, beating Canada 5-2 in the final two years ago in the inaugural event in Calgary. In Füssen, Daoust was devastated after losing the championship 3-2 in overtime to the Americans.
“This year, I think we're more ready than last year,” Daoust said. “The next year, you know what you can do against them.”
Canada opens the tournament Saturday against Russia. Both countries are in Group B along with Sweden and Germany. The U.S., Japan, the Czech Republic and Finland make up Group A. The final is April 3.
A women's world hockey championship isn't held in Olympic years. The under-18 version features Olympic stars of the future from several countries.
Aside from Daoust, Canada's returnees from the squad that lost in overtime to the U.S. include: Jessica Campbell of Melville, Sask.; Christine Bestland of Brunkild, Man.; Laurie Kingsbury of Valleyfield, Que.; Jamie Lee Rattray of Kanata, Ont.; and Jillian Saulnier of Halifax.
The 20 players on Canada's roster were chosen based on their performances at a selection camp and a three-game series versus their U.S. counterparts last summer, as well as November's national under-18 championship in Surrey, B.C.
Fifteen players in the lineup were on the team that beat the U.S. 2-1 in their three-game series in August.
“What I'm most excited about is the blend we have between skill and what I called sandpaper, the ability to play in the gritty areas on the ice and play physical and tough and be strong,” said head coach Dan Church, who also coaches the York University women's team.
Rattray, a forward, and defender Shannon Doyle of Baldwin, Ont., were named the best at their positions in November's national under-18 championship. The player whose stock skyrocketed in Surrey, however, is defenceman Caitlin MacDonald of Winnipeg. MacDonald wasn't even invited to selection camp last summer.
“She kind of came out of the blue. She really impressed us with how she played at the under-18 nationals in Surrey,” Church said. “I got to see her play a few times with the University of Manitoba. We really liked the skills she brought and her defensive abilities so we added her to the lineup.”
Another player to watch is defender Erin Ambrose of Keswick, Ont., who doesn't turn 16 until after the tournament ends.
“She sees the game better than most players her age, let alone defenders,” Church said. “She's the whole package and she's so focused as an athlete. She played very well in the summer and well above where we thought she'd be, being a young player.”
Olympic team coach Melody Davidson sounded warning bells over a year ago about the superior individual skills the American under-18 teams were displaying. Church says more time was spent on skill development last summer in Canada's camp.
“In Canada, we're really good at tactics and the x's and o's of the game, positional play, forechecking and defensive zone coverage. Sometimes we spend a little bit more time on that than we do the individual skills,” Church explained. “We really looked at helping the players in their individual skill development.
“That's something you see throughout the three programs – the under-18s, the under-22 and the national team – is an emphasis on continuing to build and develop and refine the skill parts of the game. The other thing we looked at was we needed players who were physically tough and mentally tough. We've tried to fill all those areas.”
This year's American roster features two players looking for a third straight title: defender Meagan Mangene and forward Kendall Coyne. Coyne scored the overtime goal in Füssen.
The U.S. will be coached by three-time Olympian Katie King of Boston College. She has five returning players from last year's squad, including goaltender Alex Rigsby, who was named the tournament's top goalie. Rigsby was the first female to be drafted by the USHL junior league when the Chicago Steel selected her with their 16th-round pick.
The Canadian team is currently in Toronto for a pre-competition camp and heads to Chicago on Friday. Church wants the under-18 women to extend Canada's success in international hockey beyond the Olympics.
“For us, we want to ride the momentum that the men's and women's teams have built for us and bring home our first gold medal in this age group,” he said. “I really think we have the group that can do that.”