NEW YORK – New York was the final destination for the United States women’s national team before heading to Finland for the Four Nations tournament this week.
The American women arrived in the state shortly after the major storm hit. At the time, New York and New Jersey were just beginning to dig out from Hurricane Sandy, a storm that caused significant damage to many towns and communities.
Teams USA practices were conducted at the Madison Square Garden’s state-of-the-art facilities in Greenburgh, New York. The Madison Square Garden Training Center opened ten years ago and is widely acknowledged as one of the better training and practice centers in professional sports.
“We thought we were attending a fantasy camp,” said longtime USA Hockey skater and team captain Julie Chu. “When you first enter the building you are immediately aware that it’s an amazing facility. We are very fortunate that the Liberty opened up their locker room to us and the Rangers and Knicks are hosting us.”
Forward Kelli Stack also reacted to the facility with similar awe.
“We’ve never been to a place like this before,” Stack offered. “We got taken care of so well by the staff here and the USA Hockey staff. To play in the Rangers facility is a dream come true. It’s awesome.”
The Four Nations tournament will be the first national team participation for the United States women since the Women’s World Championships in April.
Team USA will be looking to erase their disappointing silver medal finish in the tournament at home in Burlington, Vermont. After defeating Canada 9-2 in the Preliminary Round, the Americans were beaten 5-4 by their biggest rivals in the gold medal game.
“That was a huge letdown because we were on home soil and that would have been a special World Championship to win,” said Kelli Stack, who was named best forward in the tournament. “It would have meant a little bit more beating Canada because we were in the United States. To not win that one hurt a lot and this Four Nations tournament will be something that puts us back on the right track.”
The Americans are the defending Four Nations tournament champions having bested Canada 4-3 in a shootout in the gold medal game last year. Given that the two nations are locked in a rivalry for the crown of being ranked number one in hockey, emotions run high across international competitions.
“I definitely remember every time we play Canada and have it in the back of my mind. But when you hit the ice for a new game none of that matters,” said Stack. “You try to put your best foot forward and you do everything you can to compete and win.”
The U.S. women’s national team practices at the New York Rangers’ training facility. Photo: Julie Juarez / USA Hockey
Team USA opens the Four Nations tournament on Tuesday afternoon against Sweden. Going in, the Americans understand the opportunity to repeat will be tough given the growing competition.
Sweden is a talented young team with the skill and ability to make the shift to the next level. Their younger players are coming into their own while still adjusting the higher pace and flow of a game.
Finland has been nipping at the heels of the USA and Canada for some time. Finland’s goaltender Noora Räty, who plays for the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers, is a game changer.
Team USA is certainly not lacking in talent and motivation but their main concern after flying to Finland will be playing four games in five days, leaving little time to regroup.
“It’s a long flight and then the time change but you try to get as much sleep as you can,” said Stack. “Warm ups are really important. Once you get that first game under your belt it takes the pressure off and then you get settled in and used to it but it is a quick week and goes by fast. I think once the first game is over with everyone is much more comfortable.”
Chu, 30, and Stack, 24, are experienced veterans whose offensive contributions and leadership will be instrumental in Team USA’s success.
“We have a lot of players who are still in college so for me being 24 and out of college I think I have a little bit more responsibility and a little bit more pressure to perform and lead by example,” said Stack of her emerging role as a leader. “I am looking forward to doing that.”
The Four Nations tournament is another important test for players and the team itself in preparing for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“Every time we get together is a building block for 2014,” said Chu. “From the first camp that leads out to our Olympic cycle, the message is being sent that we are preparing for 2014. That being said, we will be ready to compete in the upcoming tournament.”
For now, the Four Nations tournament offers a chance to move closer and in a positive direction towards Sochi, Russia. And in April the team will travel to Ottawa for the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship where they will play at another NHL facility, the Ottawa Senators’ Scotiabank Place.
“I think we want to come together and play really well and keep our foot on the gas to improve with every tournament we go into,” said Stack of this week’s tournament. ”We did win (the Four Nations) last year but coming off a World Championship where we didn’t win, so this is a huge tournament for us to build momentum.”