Fresh off its second consecutive gold medal at the IIHF World Women’s Championships, things look promising for the U.S. Women’s National Team heading into the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.
Soon, the team will take its gold-medal act on the road when it embarks on the Qwest Tour beginning with a Sept. 25 date with the WCHA All-Stars in St. Paul, Minn. It will mark the first of 10 games on the tour that will be played in nine different cities from coast to coast, ending just before the Olympics on Feb. 4 against Finland.
Once the Olympic team is chosen in late August, the squad will set up shop in Blaine, Minn., which has been the headquarters for the residency program since it was instituted last September. The Schwan Super Rink will serve as the practice facility between contests, which includes three games against archrival Canada: one in October and two in December, and matchups with three women’s collegiate All-Star teams.
“I think it gives a lot of younger players an opportunity to face them,” says three-time Olympic veteran Angela Ruggiero about the many meetings with Canada.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve played Canada, if you included all the pre-Olympic tour games and exhibition games and worlds and everything else. I’m really glad we’re going to play them some more so the younger players can keep the ball rolling and build on that experience.”
Training in Blaine will include a mix of strength conditioning, yoga, sports psychology meetings and power skating, and will give the team a chance to gel both on and off the ice.
“I think they’re pretty close right now but during that time, they spend a lot of time together and they’re going to have that much more time to bond together and get to know each other,” says David Flint, who was recently named to the coaching staff led by Mark Johnson.
“It’s different when you work with someone every single day. They’re going to learn to coexist with each other on a daily basis rather than just come in for a couple weeks and everything is real quick.”
Much like the pre-Olympic tour in 2001, the U.S. Women’s Team will make appearances in stops along the tour, visiting school children and generally spreading the word about women’s hockey.
From a coaching standpoint, the tour is also a chance to throw the team into a metaphorical Petri dish, experimenting with lines and combinations to see which players work best together in various situations.
“In the past when we’ve gone to World Championships, you don’t get a lot of time with those kids to see what they can do and different areas they might be able to contribute in,” Flint says. “I think the Qwest Tour offers us that ability with a bunch of games and a lot more time together.”
In addition to giving the coaches a chance to tinker with the lineup, the Qwest Tour is also great exposure for the team leading up to an Olympics in which hockey, both men’s and women’s, will be at the forefront. There are also many more opportunities for fans to follow the action, as the NHL Network will broadcast the three games against Canada and the tour finale with Finland in Colorado Springs.
Qwest Communications, the title sponsor of the tour, is also providing a chance for fans to follow the team through weekly text message alerts which will deliver game scores, player quotes, training tips and information on player appearances.
While fans have never had this kind of access in the past, the ultimate goal is still to make sure the team is playing their best hockey by the time February rolls around.
“You have to keep that consistency there and you have to keep that balance,” Flint says. “You have to keep challenging them everyday but you also have to know when you can push them and when you have to back off a little bit. You don’t want to push them too much too early and get them burnt out before the Olympics.
“That’s ultimately your goal. Hopefully, you get them to peak at the Olympics.”