DENVER — As part of the lead up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the U.S. Women’s Olympic team has been partaking in the Qwest Tour, a series of exhibition games against top talent with the goal of winnowing the team to 21 skaters.
On Dec. 12 in Denver, the U.S. faced off against archrival Canada. Two things stood out from the game: the volume of former U.S. collegiate players on both teams, and the penchant for checking penalties.
Team USA was skating with 23 players, several of whom were getting their final shot to make the national team. All 23 skaters played college hockey. For the Canadians, 12 of their skaters are former or current NCAA players.
When it comes to checking, it seems the rules are applied inconsistently. Four of the 11 penalties were for checking, along with a roughing penalty to former Minnesota-Duluth standout Caroline Ouellette that came after a scrum started by a check. In watching the game, it was never clear when a checking penalty would be called.
Both of these teams have been playing against boys teams as they prepare for the Olympics, where checking is common.
“There’s always going to be battles out there, little hits,” said former Mercyhurst standout Meghan Agosta. “I think that’s a good thing. We play major AAA guys and we have to be really prepared, so I think that helps us for games like this where we have to battle and do what everything takes.”
“Personally, I’d like to see more checking allowed along the boards,” said Ouellette. “I play with boys for a long time; I played with checking. The only problem with that is often it becomes the major point of the game where everyone is just looking to hit everyone. I think people appreciate that about our game, that we don’t have the checking and it allows for smaller players to be successful.
“I don’t know if the smaller players would be as good as the best in the world if you allowed checking,” Ouellette continued. “When you concentrate on checking, it makes the players bigger and bigger, because it becomes the major aspect of the game. I like it the way it is, but sometimes I wish the referees would allow us to check along the boards.”
“I mean, if you watch the NHL it’s the same thing,” laughed Wisconsin standout Hilary Knight. “The referees always have interpretation on the calls. For me, almost being 6 feet, I’d like more of a checking game, but obviously that could take away from the skill set we bring as female hockey players. We’re training harder, we’re training faster, so I think the hits you do see are a result of the hard work we do in the weight room.”
The U.S. lost, 4-2, in a game that was never very close. The Canadians dominated the early action, forcing the U.S. to take a couple of early penalties. Though they killed the penalties, they never seemed to get their legs under them.
“It’s not a good way to start the game, but it’s part of the game,” said former Minnesota-Duluth star Jenny Potter. “We killed two penalties and it was great for our team. You just have to stay out of the box.”
Canada scored first on a weird play. Team USA’s Meghan Duggan was pursuing Canada’s Gina Kingsbury along the left boards in the U.S. zone when she was knocked to the ice by an official. Kingsbury circled the net and got the puck out to Agosta, who rifled a shot wide left that bounced off the backboards to Kingsbury, whose shot went off Angela Ruggiero’s stick and past former Wisconsin goaltender Jessie Vetter.
“We had a plan and were really well prepared,” said Agosta, who said she still talks to her former teammates and coach, and plans to return to Mercyhurst for the spring semester after Vancouver. “We went out there and did what we were working on in practice. I thought the key was to keep on battling and to continue to get shots on net.”
The Canadians built on their lead in the second on a power play when former Harvard co-captain Sarah Vaillancourt fed a perfect pass to Marie-Philip Poulin in the slot, who one-timed it five-hole past Vetter at 6:30.
Less than a minute later, Ouellette made it 3-0 when she picked up a rebound with four U.S. players around her in the slot and lifted it five-hole.
The U.S. got a brief moment of life in the third when former Providence player Karen Thatcher got a rebound of a Kerry Weiland shot and lifted it high glove side past Canadian goaltender Kim St. Pierre at 5:07.
However, the U.S barely had time to celebrate before Agosta flew down the right side boards, cut to the slot and slid the puck stick side past Vetter at 5:24.
The U.S. picked up a late power-play goal from Knight, who collected a rebound of a shot by Potter and fired it home from the right hashmarks at 17:33.
“Every time you go up against Canada, you take things away from it,” said U.S. coach Mark Johnson. “I was highly encouraged by the first 10 minutes of the third period. I thought at that point we relaxed a little bit. Other than the score, I think we’re making progress.”
The two teams face off against each other again on Dec. 30 in St. Paul, Minn. The U.S. will then play the ECAC All-Stars, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in January, and conclude the Qwest Tour with a game against Finland in Colorado Springs on Feb. 4.