Christina Kessler realized her hockey career had reached a different level when she stepped off the plane at St. John's International Airport.
She was greeted by a TV camera and photographers clicking away as the she collected her bags.
"It was kind of a surreal experience," the goaltender said. "I don't think it hit me until that moment that I was actually part of such an important part of Canada.
"Everyone knows that we won the gold medal at the last Olympics."
The 22-year-old from Mississauga, Ont., is one of three players making their debut with the Canadian women's hockey team Tuesday at the Four Nations Cup in St. John's, N.L.
Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Finland participate in the annual tournament that concludes Saturday.
Canada opens against the U.S. and it will be the first meeting between the two countries since the Canadians beat the Americans 2-0 for Olympic gold Feb. 25.
While Canada's roster includes 14 players who beat the Americans in the Olympic final in Vancouver, most of the returning players are forwards. The defence looks much different.
Veteran defencemen Becky Kellar, Carla MacLeod and Colleen Sostorics retired after the Games, which created openings for Tara Watchorn of Newcastle, Ont., and Courtney Birchard of Mississauga on the Four Nations roster.
The 20-year-old Watchorn, forward Vicki Bendus of Wasaga Beach, Ont., and Kessler are the trio of newbies on the squad.
Birchard's experience with the national team is limited to a camp which included exhibition games against Sweden.
Defenders Bobbi-Jo Slusar of Swift Current, Sask., and Annie Guay of Rouyn-Noranda, Que., have participated in the Four Nations Cup before, but haven't played for Canada in a world championship or Olympics yet.
Meaghan Mikkelson of St. Albert, Alta., and Tessa Bonhomme of Sudbury, Ont., are the Olympic veterans on the blue-line.
At five foot 10 and 176 pounds, Watchorn adds size to Canada's defence. Watchorn, Bendus and Kessler played on Canada's under-22 team earlier this year. Watchorn, a junior at Boston University this season, expects the national team to be several steps up from the under-22 level.
"The whole country is competing to play on this one team and just the level of commitment, the speed of the game, the strength it takes is a huge difference compared to other levels of hockey," Watchorn said. "You have to put everything into it because everyone else in the country is competing for your spot."
The three rookies are bracing for Canada's first game against the Americans.
"It's pretty much throwing us right in the fire. I'm looking forward to it," said Bendus, a Mercyhurst forward who won the Patty Kazmaier Award last season as the top female college player in the U.S.
Since the team arrived last week, Canada has had four practices and lost 5-4 to the Pennecon Privateers midget triple-A men's team Sunday in an exhibition game.
That's not a lot of time to prepare, particularly when the Canadians open against their archrival.
Head coach Ryan Walter spent two full practices on special teams as those areas tend to suffer when integrating new players into a lineup in short period of time.
"Can you establish a great power play in two days? Probably not, but these are great athletes and we'll certainly have high expectations from them," Walter said.
"Short tournaments are always a challenge that way. We're really thankful we could get these three or four days in previous to the tournament. It was a good decision by Hockey Canada to come right to St. John's and not have a training camp somewhere else."
Walter, a former NHL player and an assistant coach of the Vancouver Canucks last season, is running Canada's bench at this tournament. Hockey Canada will name the coach for the 2011 women's world championships at a later date.
Harvard's Katey Stone takes over for Mark Johnson as head coach of the U.S.
Captain Natalie Darwitz is not on the American roster. According to USA Hockey, she is injured and is taking a year off from the national team. Veteran defenceman Angela Ruggiero will also not play in St. John's because she's had shoulder surgery.
The U.S. team retains 13 players from their Olympic team, including four-time Olympian Jenny Potter. Forward Jinelle Zaugg-Siergiej was a late addition to the squad Sunday. She replaced Amanda Kessel, younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel. Amanda Kessel was injured while playing for the University of Minnesota on Friday.
Walter will rely on the experience of veterans Hayley Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford, Gillian Apps, Cherie Piper and Sarah Vaillancourt to calm teammates who haven't faced the U.S. at this level.
"I think part of the veteran leadership's job on this team will be to mentor some of these younger players who haven't," he said.
Forwards Megan Agosta of Ruthven, Ont., and Marie-Philip Poulin of Beauceville, Que., are the Canadian players to watch in the tournament. Agosta set an Olympic tournament record with nine goals and six assists and was named MVP, while Poulin scored both of Canada's goals in the gold-medal game.
Whether Kessler gets into the net for any games is a question mark. Edmonton's Shannon Szabados was spectacular against the U.S. in the Olympic final and Kim St. Pierre has been the go-to goalie for Canada in several big games this decade.
Canada faces Sweden on Wednesday in Clarenville and then wraps up the preliminary round Friday back at Mile One Stadium in St. John's against Finland (TSN, 6 p.m. ET). The top two teams are the preliminary round advance to Saturday's final (TSN2, 6 p.m. ET).
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