The United States Women's Olympic ice hockey team will be relying on a mixture of youth and experience as they prepare for the 2010 Winter Games this February in Vancouver, Canada. Women's squads from eight different nations will be battling for the gold medal.
The women's hockey tournament at the Olympics is a relatively new development, with the first of the three tournaments contested thus far being played at the Nagano, Japan Games in 1998. The United States beat Canada in the final to win the inaugural gold medal. But since then, Canada has topped the podium, beating the United States in Salt Lake City in 2002 and Sweden at the Turin Games in 2006.
Defenseman Angela Ruggiero has been on the United States squad from the beginning, playing in Nagano, Salt Lake City and Turin. One of two players on Team USA making her fourth Olympic appearance, Ruggiero says they are playing more games than ever to prepare.
"We're absolutely excited. We've had tremendous success in the last couple of years and we feel our program can still improve on that. And so all of us can attest to the fact that there are more games to be had with this team and so much more potential," she said.
Team USA played in the 2009 Hockey Canada Cup last September, a test event at Olympic hockey venues in Vancouver, and beat Canada twice on the way to winning the gold medal.
Forward Natalie Darwitz, who played on the national team for the first time at the age of 15 in 1998 and is preparing for her third Olympic tournament, said that was a big achievement.
"I think most important for our team was getting a feel of the Olympic venue. You know, playing in the rink that is going to host the gold medal game is very important for the players to get a feeling for the ice, for getting a feeling for the locker rooms and the crowds most of all. We took some confidence coming away from that and I think standing there in the gold medal position really put some goose bumps on some players and is going to be a huge motivational factor to be in that same exact spot come the end of February," she said.
Ruggiero says the Canada Cup was a great preview for the Olympic tournament.
"The U.S., Canada, Finland, Sweden are the dominant teams in women's hockey. Kind of what we can anticipate, I think, in the Olympics. But again, you can't take any team lightly. We saw that obviously and women's hockey does continue to improve and that's what is exciting about it, I think," she said.
In November, Team USA took second place at the Four Nations Cup in Finland, losing to Canada in the gold medal game, 5-1.
They are now taking part in the Qwest Tour, which consists of 10 games throughout the United States.
The Olympic women's teams each have 21 players on their rosters, including three goaltenders. Group-A contains Canada, Sweden, Switzerland and Slovakia, and Group-B includes the United States, Finland, Russia and China.
Forward Julie Chu, who is the first Asian on the U.S. women's team and is making her third Olympic appearance, says this team is much different than the 2006 bronze medalists in Turin.
"After 2006 we had a great deal of turnover in our support staff, our coaching staff and in our players. So we only have six returning Olympians. And when anyone sees that they think 'Wow, that's a huge turnover.' But I think we saw that as a great opportunity to recreate ourselves," she said.
Goaltender Jessica Vetter is making her first Olympic appearance but has backstopped the University of Wisconsin to three national titles and won two World Championships with Team USA. She's also on a five-game winning streak against Canada -- and talks about playing Team USA's arch-rival.
"You have to come in prepared, because if you aren't they will definitely take advantage of you. Especially as a goaltender they will know when you are off. But you know with the Canadians I think it's just not giving them second opportunities. But in the end you just have to go out there and have fun and just make the saves you can and maybe some of the ones you probably shouldn't," she said.
Ruggiero says the Olympics contribute to the growth of women's hockey in the United States.
"We all talk about when we were little we had NHL stars to look up to. And now we have little girls who come to the rink and they look up to us. The more people can see us, the more people can read about us, the more little girls want to be like us. And you'll see an increase in the number of girls registering and having new role models. And I think everyone on our team is an outstanding role model," she said.
Among the other players to watch on Team USA is Jenny Potter, who is the team's oldest veteran at the age of 30 and playing in her fourth Olympics. On the other end of the scale is scoring threat Hilary Knight, the youngest U.S. player at 20 years old. She is just nine days younger than Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux, who will become the first set of twins ever to play hockey in the Olympics.
While other teams are catching up, women's ice hockey is still dominated by Canada and the United States, and the two teams are a good bet to meet for the third time for the Olympic title.