Canada is entering the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship with confidence.
The team reeled off wins in two-of-three games against the U.S. in a summer exhibition series held in Rockland, Ont., and hopes that run of success continues against its main rival during the tournament taking place from Dec. to Jan. in the Czech Republic
“(The exhibition series) was good for our confidence and it was good for the returning players,” said Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team head coach Pierre Alain. ‘It was their first victory (over the U.S.) since last year. They lost five times before beating them once.”
“It was very good for them.”
Canada has faced the defending champion U.S. for gold at all four women’s under-18 world championships, losing every year but in 2010.
Alain, his fellow coaching staff and Hockey Canada scouts have selected six returning players from the 2011 silver medal squad, including defenceman Erin Ambrose (Keswick, Ont./Toronto, PWHL), who is participating in her third straight world championship.
Each of those players is well aware of the challenge posed by the Americans. They beat Canada 5-2 in last year's final.
“They are individually skilled,” Alain said of the U.S. team. “Their skills are very good.”Canada opens the tournament against Switzerland in Prerov on Saturday. It also faces Germany and Finland before moving on to the medal round.
The other group features the U.S., Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. The gold medal game will be played Jan. 7.
Alain was an assistant coach at the 2010 IIHF World Women’s Under-18 Championship in Chicago, Ill., where Canada won its sole gold medal – at least so far. One of the observations he took away from that experience was just how much better some of the lower-ranked countries are getting.
“Other countries are working very hard to be on top of the world, too,” he said. When the Canadian players gathered together in Rockland, just outside of Ottawa, Ont., for a selection camp in August, he preached the importance of having respect for each of their opponents.
“I told the players to live in the moment,'' Alain said. “It's one game at a time. We expect opposition, we expect other teams to be very good and to skate and to try and beat us. They'll do whatever they need to beat us.
“We have to be ready for every game.''
Alain is joined behind the bench by two assistant coaches: former Canada’s National Women’s Team member Carla MacLeod and Jim Fetter, currently assistant coach of St. Could State University’s women’s hockey team.
The team flew to Europe earlier this week and has been practising ahead of the event. Laura Stacey (Kleinburg, Ont./Toronto, PWHL) led Canada in scoring during the summer three-game exhibition series that saw seven different players score goals.
Alain plans to roll all four of his lines during the tournament.
“Our strength is our depth,'' he said. “We have four very good lines, four lines that can play both ends of the ice. We have good skaters.
“We've worked a lot on the collective tactics during the summer in Rockland, so our system is good.”
While the team is obviously eyeing a gold medal, Alain hopes his players come away with a lot more than that. For many, it will be their first time travelling to Europe and playing in a world-class event.
“It will be an experience that they will remember for the rest of their lives,'' Alain said.
“Self-confidence, I think, is for them one of the biggest things they'll get from this.”
The under-18 players aren't the only women representing Canada in international hockey to start 2012. Canada’s National Women’s Under-22 Team opens the 2012 Meco Cup on Jan. 3 in Füssen, Germany against the host country.
Canada is the defending champion at that event, which is formerly known as the MLP Cup.