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Canadian women’s hockey team seeks to evolve game in quest for world three-peat

Melding methods is Canada’s target at the women’s world hockey championship.

Canada won Olympic gold with an explosive offence and then world championship gold with less firepower and more grind in 2022.

The Canadian women chase a third straight world title starting Wednesday against Switzerland in Brampton, Ont.

Head coach Troy Ryan is challenging the Canadians to find the sweet spot of combining high-octane and grit at the CAA Centre.

Canada claimed the 2022 world championship in Herning, Denmark, less than seven months after blitzing an Olympic tournament scoring record in Beijing with 57 goals.

During this winter’s seven-game Rivalry Series against the United States, which Canada won 4-3, Ryan asked his players to think about a blend of the two styles that brought them success last year.

“The Olympics was a lot of offence. You look at Denmark, the U.S. was the offensive team, the high-flying team and we were grinding it out,” Ryan told The Canadian Press. 

“What if you could merge them? I don’t think you need to give up offence to compete really hard defensively, and be physical.

“Through parts of the Rivalry Series, we started to show that. Although it’s still a work in progress, that’s one of the coolest things. I believe this group truly believes they can be a little bit of both.”

The COVID-19 pandemic shifting the 2021 world championship to late summer and the International Ice Hockey Federation adding a world championship to an Olympic Games calendar year for the first time has the Canadian women pursuing a fourth straight gold medal in a top-level international championship in less than 20 months.

Canada won world gold in Calgary in 2021 to end a run of five straight world titles by the U.S.

The hosts played in front of a handful of friends and family in Calgary because of pandemic restrictions.

Only re-sale tickets are available for Canada’s preliminary-round games and the gold-medal game is sold out in Brampton.

After its opener against the Swiss, the 2023 edition takes on Czechia on Friday and Japan on Saturday. Canada ends pool play April 10 against archrival U.S.

Finland, Sweden, Hungary, Germany and France comprise Pool B of the sixth to 10th seeds. 

The April 13 quarterfinals are followed by semifinals April 15 and the medal games April 16.

Canada’s roster features 18 players who were both Olympic and world champions in 2022, including goaltenders Ann-Renée Desbiens, Emerance Maschmeyer and Kristen Campbell.

Canada’s captain Marie-Philip Poulin, The Canadian Press female athlete of the year in 2022, became just the fifth woman to reach a career 200 points with the national women’s team during the Rivalry Series.

Poulin, Brianne Jenner, Sarah Nurse and Sarah Fillier are expected to drive Canada’s offence. 

Veteran forward Natalie Spooner is back in the lineup after having a child in December. 

Four-time Olympian Rebecca Johnston also returns after giving her back a post-Beijing break.

Claire Thompson, named the Olympic tournament’s top defender, skipped Denmark’s world championship for her first month of NYU medical school. 

She’s rejoined the lineup to expand Canada’s offensive options from the back end..

Edmonton forward Danielle Serdachny, 21, will make her world championship debut. 

Defender Jamie Bourbonnais, 24, returns to the world championship roster after helping Canada win gold in 2021.

“We have a handful of young defence … that are playing well enough to be here and have an impact on our team, but there’s still a whole other level for some of them,” Ryan said. 

“Early in a quad, you have to find time for them. You have to find opportunities if you can. You can’t always, and you can’t always give opportunities to all of them at the same time.”

In winning two straight world titles and Olympic gold with Ryan behind the bench, Canada currently has the upper hand in its constant tug of war with the Americans.

Ryan of Spryfield, N.S., is under contract through to the 2026 Winter Olympic in Cortina, Italy.

“The way he allows us to have fun while we’re playing, it makes you want to be there and play for a coach like that,” Spooner said.

“With Troy, you always feel so prepared. If you make a mistake, it’s normally within the structure, but you can also be free within that structure. 

“I think back to the Olympics. We were so, so, so prepared. Any situation that was thrown at us, we were going to come out on top.”

The state of the women’s pro hockey in North America will be a backdrop to the world championship. 

The majority of the Canadian team and almost half the U.S. roster are affiliated with the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association, which has stated its intention to start a league in 2023-24.

North American stars such as Poulin, Nurse, Jenner, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield continue to align with the PWHPA.

The seven-team Premier Hockey Federation, which recently crowned the Toronto Six as this year’s Isobel Cup champion, has nine players sprinkled across the Swiss, Czech, Hungarian and U.S. rosters in Brampton.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2023.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press