Hilary Knight is unaccustomed to losing, leaving the face of the U.S. national women’s hockey team still feeling the sting of watching the Canadians celebrate their gold-medal victory at the Beijing Winter Games in February.
The memory following a 3-2 loss had Knight looking ahead to settling several scores before the Americans left for Denmark, where they will open the world championships with a game against Japan on Thursday.
“I truly think we’re the best team in the world. And when that doesn’t show up in a tournament setting, then we haven’t achieved our potential,” Knight told The Associated Press. “So I think we’ve only scratched the surface at the Olympics.”
Informed there might be 23 players north of the border who might differ with her assessment of who’s best, Knight shrugged and said: “That’s fine. I don’t care. Cool.”
There might be 10 nations competing, but as is usually the case in women’s hockey, the focus revolves around the United States and Canada, who will resume the next chapter of one of sports’ fiercest and longest-running rivalries.
Canada has the bragging rights. The Canadians’ win at Beijing came four years after losing to the U.S. at the 2018 Games in South Korea. They’re also the defending world champions after a 3-2 overtime victory a year ago to end the Americans’ run of five straight titles. They handed the U.S. a 3-1 loss Tuesday in an exhibition game in Denmark, too.
Proud as he is of Canada’s accomplishments, coach Troy Ryan was reserved when informed of Knight’s comments.
“Any player or any coach, they have their opinions,” Ryan said. “We definitely don’t pay a whole lot of attention to what the opposition is saying. We focus on what makes us successful.”
Driving Canada’s success has been Ryan introducing a high-octane style of offense the women’s game has not seen in the 24 years since it became an Olympic sport.
Canada went 7-0 at Beijing and outscored its opponents by a combined margin of 57-10, including a 4-2 preliminary round win over the U.S. Led by Sarah Nurse’s 18 points, Canadians ranked first through sixth in the tournament’s points standings, with Knight tied for seventh with 10.
As with other nations, Canada’s roster is different now, with the nation missing five key players due to various other commitments. One player who will be on the ice is captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the decisive goal over the Americans in each of their past two gold-medal meetings, and four times overall.
The Americans also return 18 of 23 Olympians, and feature a new coach in John Wroblewski, who replaces Joel Johnson.
Wroblewski brings an up-tempo approach of his own, and has spread his offense across four lines. That’s a switch from Johnson, who stacked his best players on two lines and heavily played his veterans, who wore down as the Olympic tournament progressed.
Wroblewski, otherwise, isn’t making major changes, except to emphasize more attention on finishing chances. The U.S. finished the Olympics seventh out of 10 teams in scoring efficiency with just 30 goals on a tournament-leading 374 shots.
“This group needs to just believe in us,” goalie Nicole Hensley said. “We have a lot of people in our room that have been successful at every single stage. We’ve done it before. We can do it again.”
One issue which could overshadow the tournament are contract talks involving the American and Canadian players and their respective federations. Both contracts run out at the end of the month, with the tournament’s championship game set for Sept. 4.
“It’s only a distraction if we make it one,” American captain Kendall Coyne Schofield said. “Yeah, of course we’d like to have it done by now, but we don’t for a reason. So we’ll see what happens.”
The annual world championship following each Olympic year has the potential of being the most competitive because of roster turnover and with teams having had little practice time given the quick turnaround following Beijing. That leaves nations such as Finland, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and potentially Sweden having a chance to be competitive.
Such was the case in 2019, when Finland upset Canada in the semifinals and was a contentious no-goal call away from knocking off the Americans in the gold medal game.
Finland GM Tuula Puputti is cautiously optimistic her Olympic bronze medal-winning team can once again contend. Following Canada’s lead, the Finns are also introducing a more up-tempo offensive attack under new coach Juuso Toivola.
“Overall, it’s a good thing that we raise up the level of our game because we want to make it a product that is interesting. And the better we play, the more fun to watch,” Puputti said. “Obviously, (the Canadians and Americans) are still the ones to beat, but I’m excited to see if we have something new in our pockets.”
Ryan has put Beijing behind by focusing on the worlds representing a new challenge. To emphasize the point, Ryan brought in a guest speaker to discuss his experience of climbing Mount Everest.
“One of his messages was, you only get a very brief moment at the top, and then you make your descent,” Ryan said. “And that’s been our way of thinking. We were there. That was last year. We’re back at base camp, back to reality.”
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