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Canadian women eager for final test

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
Tessa Bonhomme and the Canadian women's hockey team are pointing toward their pre-Olympic showdown with their biggest rival, the United States, on New Year's Day at Scotiabank Place (Hockey Canada photo).

So it’s not exactly what’s meant by the phrase ‘home for the holidays.’

But for about half the members of Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team, the New Year’s Day matchup with the United States at Scotiabank Place will represent just that. It’s a rare opportunity for the Calgary-based national team to put its talents on display for an eastern Canadian audience.

“It means a lot for them to play in Ottawa,” Canadian head coach Melody Davidson said of the team’s players who hail from Ontario and Quebec. “Our eastern girls only get a few chances to play out east all year. It’s a huge game for those girls.”

Fans in Hockey County certainly agree. Nearly 13,000 tickets have already been sold for the 7 p.m. game, with sales moving briskly as the matchup approaches. By the time the puck drops, the game could attract a record crowd for a women's hockey game, topping the 15,163 who saw the U.S. beat Canada 3-1 on Jan. 26, 1998, less than a month before the sport made its Olympic debut in Nagano, Japan.

It’s also the last of a six-game series between the two countries expected to duel for gold on Feb. 25, when the women’s hockey final is played at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics.

“It’ll be the last time we play them until we meet at some point during the Olympics, so it will be very motivating for our girls to do well (in Ottawa),” said Davidson. “More important in the short term, it gives people in the east a chance to see us live and get behind us as we move forward to Vancouver.”

Canada has won the first three games of the current series against its biggest rival, including a 4-2 triumph on Saturday night in Denver. Gina Kingsbury of Rouyn-Noranda, Que., Gillian Ferrari of Thornhill, Ont., Montreal’s Caroline Ouellette and veteran Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon, Sask., scored the Canadian goals.

"It means a lot for them to play in Ottawa. Our eastern girls only get a few chances to play out east all year. It’s a huge game for those girls." - Melody Davidson
The two teams play again tonight at Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome, then Dec. 30 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul., Minn., before ringing in the New Year in the nation’s capital.

In November, Canada whipped the Americans 5-1 to win the 4 Nations Cup in Finland, avenging a 3-2 loss in round-robin play. It was the last major women’s tournament before the Olympics.

Davidson said the Canadians, who won the previous two Winter Olympic golds in Salt Lake City (2002) and Turin, Italy (2006), are on the right track heading toward Vancouver 2010. The current roster sits at 23 players, with two more cuts to make before the Games.

“It’s a process,” said Davidson. “By the time we get there, we’ll have played a 60-game schedule and we’re at the 40-game mark now.

“We’re building toward being the best (team) that we can be in February.”

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