WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. (AP) — Wearing the big maple leaf on the jersey and playing hockey for Canada comes with the burden of history and tradition – and only one outcome is acceptable at the Winter Games.
Bring home gold.
Expectations are sky high in Canada where boys and girls grab sticks and start whacking at pucks almost as soon as they start walking. The women have done their part, winning the last four Olympics to maintain their spot atop the game worldwide.
Yes, the women tasked with winning a fifth straight gold at the Pyeongchang Games know exactly what is expected from them come February.
”There’s definitely a lot of pressure,” said forward Natalie Spooner, who helped Canada win gold at the 2014 Sochi Games. ”I think you’ve got to embrace it and run with it and thrive from it.”
The United States won the inaugural gold in women’s hockey in 1998. The Canadians have won the rest. An estimated 13 million people in Canada watched in 2014 as the Americans had a puck clank off the post just missing an empty-netter to clinch gold. Marie-Philip Poulin then tied it up with 54.6 seconds left in regulation before winning gold with her second goal in overtime .
Poulin said she couldn’t write a story that ended any better than the game itself. Even better? Knowing that Canada still ruled women’s hockey.
”Every time I talk to people, they still remember where they were,” Poulin said.
Forward Jennifer Wakefield was 8 when women’s hockey debuted in Nagano in 1998. When she saw Canada take gold over the United States in 2010 in Vancouver, Wakefield was addicted.
”It brings the country together, and it’s just an incredible feeling to even be a part of the history that other people have put before us wearing the Canadian jersey,” Wakefield said.
Laura Schuler knows what’s expected of Canadians perhaps better than anyone else. She is the first woman to not only play for Canada but also coach the women in the Olympics – she’ll be behind the bench in Pyeongchang. Schuler, taking a break from her job coaching women’s hockey at Dartmouth, helped Canada win three world championships in 1990, 1992 and 1997 before taking silver in her lone Olympic appearance in 1998.
”Oh, I think no matter what, whenever you put the jersey on and represent your country, it doesn’t matter if it’s exhibition or international play or the Olympics, you’re always making sure that you’re giving 100 percent,” Schuler said.
Hockey Canada certainly has done its part to groom players for the world’s biggest stage. Women get a chance to first start putting on the national sweater with that maple leaf as part of the under-18 team, then there’s the national development team that plays a three-game series with the United States each summer along with other events.
The national team also uses a centralized program of training and exhibition games to prepare for the Olympics. Canada announced its 23-woman roster for the 2018 Winter Games on Dec. 22.
Forward Rebecca Johnston, 28, said playing in the Olympics is a goal she’s had since she was a little girl. And yes, playing in the Olympics means bringing home gold. She is going for her third and said the feeling of representing Canada never gets old.
”It’s what we train for four years leading up to that Olympics is to get the best possible spot we can, the best possible team we can in hopefully that gold medal game to represent our country and to be able to win a gold medal for Canada,” Johnston said. ”So that is our ultimate goal. We have the mindset of not accepting anything less than that.”
If Canada needed any extra motivation, they need only look at United States having won the last four world championships and eight of the last 10.
”You don’t want to go out there not having that pressure behind you,” Wakefield said. ”I think we can become complacent with coming in second. So it’s nice to feel the desire to need a win.”