VANCOUVER – Canada's last game against the U.S. in women's hockey was one of its worst in recent memory.
The two countries meet Thursday for the first time since the Americans beat the Canadians 4-1 in Hameenlinna, Finland, in April to win a second straight world championship.
“You never forget those games for sure,” captain Hayley Wickenheiser said Wednesday. “We basically beat ourselves. We made key mistakes which gave them the opportunity to take the game away from us.”
This week's Hockey Canada Cup is a test event for the Olympics Games next February. Canada and the U.S. will meet up to 10 times prior to Feb. 13 when the women's Olympic hockey tournament opens in Vancouver.
About 5,000 tickets for both Thursday's game and the Sunday's final had been sold Wednesday for a building that holds almost 19,000.
For the 26 Canadians trying out for the Olympic team, this week is an opportunity to stamp the rink as their home ice and create confidence in it.
And for what it's worth, Canada won the Olympic test event in Turin, Italy, six months out from the 2006 Olympics and then won gold there.
“It made us feel good about what was coming up,” Montreal forward Caroline Ouellette recalled.
“You want to win at home and win in front of your fans. It is the last time we'll play here and play them here so it does mean a lot.”
The Americans are bent on neutralizing Canada's home-ice advantage at GM Place, which will be Canada Hockey Place in February.
“Every time we step on the ice we want to compete and knowing this is a venue for the gold-medal game is just extra motivation and extra incentive to play well here,” U.S. captain Natalie Darwitz said. “If we have confidence in this building, we're going to have confidence playing here.”
Notwithstanding their 3-2 loss to Finland to open the Hockey Canada Cup, the U.S. has momentum in its rivalry with Canada. The U.S. is 4-2 versus Canada in their last six meetings and has taken back-to-back world titles.
“They're a dynamic team and they can certainly hurt you offensively if you give them those chances,” Wickenheiser said. “But at the same time we have to look at the way we've performed.”
Canada and the U.S. have six games scheduled against each other outside of this week's Hockey Canada Cup
and the annual Four Nations Cup in Vierumaki, Finland in November.
The travelling series opens in Victoria on Oct. 5 with stops in Spokane, Wash., Denver, Calgary and St. Paul, Minn., before concluding Jan. 1 in Ottawa.
“Personally I wished we played them 50 times,” Ouellette said. “I love it. It's my favourite game and I think that most of us feels like that and I'm sure they do to.”
The two sides are each other's best competition, so any game between them is important preparation for the Games.
It's also a means of showcasing to a wider audience the best women's hockey has to offer. In non-Olympic years, international competition is limited to the world championships and Four Nations Cup and few games are televised.
The majority of Canada's 61 games this winter will be played against Alberta men's midget triple-A teams. Those matches were crucial to Canada's Olympic success in 2006 because no other country played as many competitive games prior to the Games.
The U.S. women will also play men's teams this winter from around Blaine, Minn., where they are based, but they won't have as many of those games as Canada.
“Certainly on our side of the equation, it's tough to find competition, so where are we going to get that?” U.S. head coach Mark Johnson said. “Canada is playing men's midget triple-A teams and we're playing some boys high school teams back in Minnesota so we're trying to find competition that will challenge our players.
“When we play each other, that challenge is each of us. It makes us better, irrelevant of the outcome.”
Canada went 7-6 versus the U.S. prior to the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, where women's hockey made its debut, before losing the gold to the U.S.
The U.S. beat Canada eight straight times prior to the final of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, yet the Canadians won the gold.
Canada was 8-2 before Turin and didn't even get to play the U.S. there. The Americans didn't play as many games or spend as much time together as Canada and were upset by the Swedes in the Olympic semifinal.
But they're back threatening Canada's gold-medal hopes on what is the biggest stage for their sport. Thursday's game may not mean much Feb. 25 when the Olympic gold medal will be contested, but it means something to both sides now.
“We're going to step on the ice and battle because that's what our countries do,” Darwitz said.
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