GANGNEUNG — As always, the gold medal is there for the taking for the Canadian the women’s hockey team, much as it has been since the sport was introduced into the Olympics in 1998.
But the stakes won’t end on the Gangneung Arena ice for the 23 players looking to make it five Olympic titles in a row for the most accomplished hockey nation in the world.
The responsibility goes much deeper in a country where winter sports rule and many will stay up into the wee hours of Thursday morning to watch the latest showdown vs. the U.S. (The game is scheduled to begin at 11:10 p.m. ET Wednesday.)
With that comes pressure, but this group wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s kind of cool to think that literally all of Canada tuned in to watch that game and their lives stopped just for hockey,” forward Natalie Spooner said of the 2014 final at the Sochi Games. “It’s definitely a lot of pressure but it’s exciting for women’s hockey and for all girls in sports.”
Now two decades into its Olympic life, women’s hockey is well into its second generation of players. The role-model factor is immense, especially in Canada with most on this year’s roster having grown up idolizing the sport’s pioneers.
For Spooner it got real when as a 11-year-old she attended a hockey camp in Peterborough and got to meet Team Canada veteran Jennifer Botterill and see the gold she earned in 2002. It was a motivational push that sent the Toronto native along a path to Ohio State University and eventually to becoming a fixture in the national program.
“Hopefully there are a lot of little girls watching and kind of dream of being in this spot because I remember watching and dreaming of being here myself,” Spooner said.
Almost to a player, Spooner’s teammates have similar stories of having grown up watching stars such as Cassie Campbell, Danielle Goyette, Hayley Wickenheiser and others and having the opportunity to meet them. And once you’ve played for the Canadian Olympic team, it brings with it a strong sense of celebrity at hockey rinks across the country.
“There are so many players who have come through this program and are doing fantastic things and giving back to the communities when they are through playing hockey,” forward Brianne Jenner said. “And they are fantastic role models. It was huge for me when I got to meet players and get a jersey signed. It leaves an imprint growing up.
“It’s pretty powerful and it gives you perspective.”
The imprint is much bolder when you win gold, obviously, which brings further context to Thursday’s latest clash with the Americans. In the four years since that memorable meltdown in Sochi — blowing a 2-0 lead in the final four minutes of regulation and losing in overtime — the U.S. team has become perhaps hungrier than ever.
“It means everything,” American forward Amanda Kessel said. “It’s our teammates, our family our country. We’ve been working our whole life for this.”
Of course the Canadian women make the same claim. The growth in girls hockey has been exponential since it became an Olympic sport and the golden prize available every four years is captivating.
“It’s like our Stanley Cup,” Jenner said. “It’s what we dream about since we were little girls. Once the puck drops, it’s like you are on autopilot. You train for so many hours for this that your body knows what to do it and it takes over.”
There have been suggestions that the Americans could have a motivational edge, but don’t be so sure. What you can expect, however, is a frenetic opening 10 minutes to the game and perhaps much more.
“You often like to say it comes down to who wants it more,” Jenner said. “There’s no question that both teams want it as bad as possible. It’s going to come down to who executes, who can perform in the moment and who stays disciplined. We’re going to be focussed on those things and be ready to go.”
The Americans are basing much of their confidence on out-shooting their rivals by a 45-23 margin in a preliminary-round game won 2-1 by Canada. Canadian coach Laura Schuler would prefer her team to tighten up, but given many of the shots were from the perimeter and her defence was tough in front of the net, she isn’t overly concerned.
And that’s one difference from four years ago. Schuler has had the time to implement her systems; in Sochi, Kevin Dineen assumed the head coach job at the last minute and had to adapt on the fly.
“I think it was great hockey back then but we’ve changed and focused on the defensive side of our game,” Jenner said. “Whenever these teams match up, it’s great hockey.”
Hockey that is watched and admired by many.