|Kingston native Jayna Hefford and her Canadian teammates are eagerly anticipating Friday's matchup with the United States in front of what will be a record women's hockey crowd at Scotiabank Place (IIHF/HHOF Photo).
Call it a golden sendoff of Olympian proportions.
When Team Canada faces off against the United States at Scotiabank Place on New Year's Day (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS), they'll do it in front of the largest crowd ever to witness a women's hockey game in this country.
Ticket sales for the pre-Olympic matchup had reached 15,178 this morning, surpassing the previous record of 15,163 set Jan. 26, 1998, at Calgary's Canadian Airlines (now Pengrowth) Saddledome, less than a month before the sport made its Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan.
Even after tangling with their biggest rivals half a continent away on Wednesday night, Team Canada veteran Jayna Hefford spoke with enthusiasm about the raucous scene that figures to await them in Friday's finale of a six-game series between Canada and the U.S. leading up to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games.
"It's amazing," Hefford said from St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday night after Canada edged the U.S. 2-1 at the Xcel Energy Center to take a 5-0 lead in series. "We've all heard that, too (about the potential for a record audience), and we love playing in front of a big Canadian crowd.
"Whenever we play in Canada, we're always well-supported and this also gives us a chance to get a good sense of the Canadian support we're going to get as we move forward to Vancouver. It's going to be a fun night for us."
Even more so for the 32-year-old Hefford, who hails from nearby Kingston and expects to have about 20 friends and family at the game. It's a rare treat for the eastern Canadian members of the Calgary-based team.
"We don't get a lot of opportunities to play in front of our friends and family, so I'm really looking forward to it and so are my teammates from eastern Ontario and Quebec," said Hefford, a two-time Olympic gold medallist who will participate in her fourth Winter Games in Vancouver.
Hefford's biggest international moment came at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when her goal with a mere second left in the second period proved to be the game-winner as Canada edged the Americans 3-2 in the gold-medal game. It avenged a U.S. triumph four years earlier in Nagano, something that resonates louder with Hefford than her big goal.
"I don't think about it all that often," she admitted. "When I look back, I think about standing at the blue line and hearing our anthem and winning the gold medal, but (the goal) is a nice second memory to have. Winning (gold) was the best memory for me out of those Games."
Like their men's counterparts, the Canadian women will be under tremendous pressure to mine hockey gold on home soil in Vancouver. But it is something Hefford and her teammates are prepared and happy to embrace.
"We've all heard that, too (about the potential for a record audience), and we love playing in front of a big Canadian crowd. Whenever we play in Canada, we're always well-supported and this also gives us a chance to get a good sense of the Canadian support we're going to get as we move forward to Vancouver. It's going to be a fun night for us." - Jayna Hefford
"It's an amazing thing," she said. "We know there's going to be a lot of pressure ... but any time you play for Canada, there is pressure and an expectation to win gold. But it's pressure that we accept and relish. It's great to know that everyone is wanting you to win and expecting you to win."
The series with the Americans is offering up the right tuneup for the challenge ahead. Hefford also believes games like Friday's go a long way toward promoting women's hockey.
"We're really good rivals and that's not going to change, no matter how many times we play them before Vancouver," she said. "It's something that's great for the game."
Ottawa, and Scotiabank Place in particular, are once again showing they're great for international hockey. A year ago, tournament and single-game attendance records were shattered with the 2009 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship was held in the capital for the first time. Now it's women's hockey's turn to shine.
“Hockey Country has once again demonstrated its passion for international competition with an unparalleled level of support for Canada’s national teams,” said Senators Sports & Entertainment president Cyril Leeder. “With the aid of fans throughout the national capital region, the establishment of a new attendance record tomorrow evening is certainly a great sendoff for Canada’s women’s team as it prepares for the Vancouver Games.”