World championship bleeds into Olympic prep for Canadian women’s hockey team

Canada's women start Olympic prep immediately

PLYMOUTH, Mich. — On the heels of the women’s world hockey championship, Canada will immediately begin workomg toward getting the gold at next year’s Winter Olympics.

The country’s top female hockey talent will find out within the next two weeks whether they’re among the 28 invited to try out for a team that has won four straight Olympic gold medals.

The 23 chosen will be decided over months of games and training.

The invited players will participate in a June boot camp to give them a taste of the physical and mental grind that’s to come before reporting Aug. 1 to Calgary for what’s known as “centralization.”

“What do I love about centralization?” mused two-time Olympian Rebecca Johnston.

“It’s a pretty cool experience because we’re playing full time together. We’re with each other every day trying to prepare for the Olympics over five or six months.

“We get to play a lot of games, which we’re not used to, against midget triple-A guys, which is a lot of fun. We get so close and I feel like it’s my second family.”

The Olympic women’s hockey tournament is Feb. 10-22, 2018. The U.S., Finland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan and host South Korea round out of the field.

Hockey Canada has yet to announce the Olympic women’s coaching staff. Toronto’s Laura Schuler, who played in the 1998 Winter Olympics, has been head coach for two years.

The woman overseeing centralization has been involved in the last four. 

Melody Davidson, general manager of national women’s teams programs, was Canada’s assistant coach in 2002, a head coach in 2006 and 2010, and GM in 2014.

Centralization has been a winning formula, so many elements remain the same. Training and playing together for six months separates the women into those who make the cut and those who don’t.

Playing a regular schedule of games against midget triple-A boys has been one of the key components of centralization since 2005-6, as the pace of those games mimic playing the U.S. women.

The Alberta Midget Hockey League is on board again, Davidson said. The logistics of relocating coaches and players who don’t live in Calgary are in place.

But a potential wrinkle arose from the NHL’s recent announcement its players won’t participate in the men’s Olympic tournament.

Hockey Canada will go to a Plan B for its men’s team. Davidson doesn’t yet know how that could impact Own The Podium’s 2017-18 funding for the women’s team.

The women received $1.5 million in 2009-10 and $1.6 million in 2013-14 from OTP.

The men’s team of NHL players wasn’t a full-time program and thus got $600,000 from OTP each time.

How OTP now divides the allotment to Hockey Canada’s for men’s, women’s and sledge teams remains to be seen.

“Those Own The Podium decisions are getting made in the next month,” Davidson said. “That could affect us.”

If more OTP funds are diverted to the men and less to the women, the centralized players might not feel it, but the under-18 and development women’s teams would, she said.

Centralization is designed to be punishing mentally and physically as the women are pushed beyond their limits to establish new ones.

“It does break you, but you have 27 other teammates you can rely on to pick you back up,” said defenceman Lauriane Rougeau.

Centralization is also as close as the Canadian women currently come to being professional athletes.

Between the carding money and grants they get from Sport Canada and Hockey Canada topping up their living expenses while centralized, they can live comfortably on about $5,000 per month and focus on nothing but hockey.

Their training base at WinSport, where Hockey Canada is headquartered, has an Olympic ice surface and a high-performance training centre. The women will have access to sport science and medical services there.

“You eat, sleep and play hockey,” Rougeau said. “That’s what you do. You do feel like a pro athlete.”

Those players who haven’t experienced centralization hear plenty of stories about it from the veterans.

But whether those rookies make the Olympic team or not, they come out of it a different player. Centralization is the fastest, largest step forward they take in their hockey development.

“I’ve head quite a bit about it,” defenceman Renata Fast said. “I just think it would be great for development reasons.

“It sets us up for so much success as individuals and as a team together. For me, personally, I think I’d learn a ton and it would be awesome to be together with the girls for an extended period of time and be similar to a pro team playing lots of games.”

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press

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