VANCOUVER – Even though the 2009 Hockey Canada Cup is “just a summer exhibition tournament”, there's a lot at stake as the world's best women's hockey teams compete at GM Place (Aug. 31-Sept. 6).
In addition to establishing early bragging rights for Canada, the USA, Sweden, and Finland, this 10-game tournament will serve as a test event for the 2010 Olympics. Ice quality, scoreboard functionality, and the working environment for off-ice officials will be among the elements that the IIHF will evaluate and fine-tune.
Overall, five Olympic women's games are slated for Vancouver's marquee downtown arena, including the bronze and gold medal games. The other 15 will be held at UBC's Thunderbird Arena.
Building up to the Olympics, the Canadians and Americans will continue to clash head-to-head, playing six exhibition games between October 5 (Victoria, BC) and January 1 (Ottawa, ON). In between, they'll hook up with Sweden and Finland again at the Four Nations Cup in November.
The host Canadians are under more pressure than they've ever faced since 2002, when they won Olympic gold for the first time in Salt Lake City. Led by superstar forward Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada has long dominated women's hockey, triumphing at eight straight World Championships between 1990 and 2004. It's the defending Olympic champion from 2006.
However, the Americans have gained the upper hand recently. Backstopped by goalie Jessie Vetter and led offensively by captain Natalie Darwitz, they won the Worlds in 2008 and 2009. That's forced Canadian head coach Melody Davidson to retool, adding 18-year-old forwards Marie-Philip Poulin and Brianne Jenner to the roster.
Both at the Hockey Canada Cup and the Olympics, expect the Swedes and Finns to battle it out for third and fourth place. Sweden shocked everyone by edging the Americans in a semi-final shootout in Turin 2006 en route to silver versus Canada in the final. Yet the Finns have revitalized their program, capturing bronze at the last two Worlds with the help of Noora Räty's poised netminding.
There'll be close scrutiny of all four teams here, but just how many eyes will be watching?
GM Place has a special place in women's hockey history: it once held the record for the largest single-game attendance, attracting 14,944 for Canada's 2-1 win over the USA on January 16, 1998. That was an exhibition clash prior to the Nagano Olympics, where the Americans claimed gold as women's hockey made its Olympic debut.
The attendance mark stood until the 2007 IIHF World Women's Championship in Winnipeg. There, Canada and the USA twice drew capacity crowds of 15,003 at the MTS Centre (for a round-robin encounter and the gold medal game where Canada prevailed 5-1).
The home of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks has a capacity of 18,630, and thus it's possible we could see a new single-game record established on September 3 (the Canada-USA round robin game) or September 6 (the gold medal game) as excitement builds toward 2010.
During the 2010 Olympics, GM Place will be known as Canada Hockey Place. But regardless of the name, it's certain the arena will be packed to capacity on Thursday, February 25 when the puck drops at 15:30 local time for the final. And the Hockey Canada Cup should be a great preview.