Commentary

Preparation key for U.S. women's team

Updated: August 24, 2009, 5:24 PM ET
By Amy Rosewater | Special to ESPN.com

When Mark Johnson and his USA Hockey teammates arrived in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the Winter Olympic Games in 1980, they had no idea that they would perform a miracle on ice.

But they arrived knowing they were prepared, and that proved to be a lasting lesson that Johnson took from American coach Herb Brooks.

"We were so well prepared when we got off the bus in the Lake Placid, we were ready to go," Johnson said.

[+] EnlargeJessie Vetter
Dale Zanine/US PresswireGoalie Jessie Vetter helped lead the United States to gold in this past year's world championships.

Now the coach of the U.S. women's national hockey team, Johnson wants to make sure he is preparing his Olympic team in the same fashion. Johnson and his coaching staff spent a sleepless night Sunday making final evaluations before announcing the 23-player roster for the 2009-10 women's national team on Monday afternoon. Twenty-one of the players, including three goaltenders, will compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver in less than six months. The final Olympic roster is expected to be announced in mid-December.

Just as Brooks did leading up to the 1980 Winter Olympics, Johnson is putting his players through several rigorous tests leading up to Vancouver. This past weekend, 41 players convened in Blaine, Minn., outside the Twin Cities for the USA Hockey Women's National Festival. The women played in four games.

The 23 players, including Jenny Potter and Angela Ruggiero (two players who have played on all three U.S. women's Olympic teams dating back to 1998), will be traveling Saturday to Vancouver and will compete in the Hockey Canada Cup next week. The U.S. team also will play 10 exhibition games, beginning Sept. 25 in St. Paul, Minn., as a way to prepare for the Olympic competition.

Many of the women named to the team were considered shoo-ins, such as Ruggiero, Natalie Darwitz (who played on two Olympic teams and has been an assistant coach for Johnson at the University of Wisconsin) and veteran forward Julie Chu. Others with past Olympic experience who made the squad are defensemen Caitlin Cahow and Molly Engstrom, both members of the 2006 U.S. Olympic team.

None of the three goaltenders have Olympic experience, although Jessie Vetter was the U.S. goaltender when the Americans beat Canada 4-1 in the gold-medal game at the 2009 world championships in April. She also captured the Patty Kazmaier Memorial Award as the top women's college hockey player.

Among those with Olympic experience who didn't make the 23-player roster are goaltender Chanda Gunn, defenseman Helen Resor and forward Sarah Parsons. All three represented the United States at the 2006 Torino Games.

Although the preparation might be similar between the 1980 men's hockey team and the 2010 women's hockey team, there are some major differences.

Back when Johnson played on the U.S. men's team in 1980, the Americans were considered a rag-tag college squad with little hope of winning a medal, let alone defeating the mighty Soviet Union in the semifinals and ultimately winning the gold medal.

The team that Johnson will guide to Vancouver in February, however, has a lot of weight riding on its shoulder pads. The U.S. women have not won an Olympic gold medal since the sport made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games (it earned the silver in 2002 and the bronze four years later). But it has won the past two world championship titles and practically has booked a gold-medal match against rival Canada.

"We're not in the miracle business anymore," USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said shortly before the team was announced today. "We're in the expectation business."

And the expectations are high, top-of-the-medal-podium high.

And it is a team with experience and youth. Thirteen players on the Team USA roster played NCAA Division I hockey during the 2008-09 season. Ten of the players were on the 2008-09 U.S. women's select team that participated in a residency program in Blaine.

The process of selecting this team really began three years ago, when Michele Amidon came on board as USA Hockey's first director of women's hockey. She helped establish the residency program and has said the United States has some "unfinished business" to take care of after its disappointing bronze-medal finish at the 2006 Winter Games.

Now it's up to Johnson & Co. to prepare this group for its biggest test. Some of the women he's coaching are youngsters such as Hilary Knight, who at 20 is the youngest member on the roster. Others are experienced such as Potter, the oldest player at 30.

Some of them hadn't been before the 1980 Winter Games, but they all know about that special year.

"I'm a 1980 Olympic freak," Cahow said.

Johnson already has his Olympic gold medal. Now his task is to help Cahow and her teammates have their Olympic moment in 2010.

And if that comes to fruition, they will remember Monday as one milestone en route to that finish line.

Amy Rosewater, a freelance writer based in Baltimore, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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