Over the course of their careers, the women of the Olympic hockey training squad have gone from playing hockey with the boys as kids, to playing against them as grown-ups.
This season is no different: the women will go up against each of the 18 teams in the Alberta Midget Hockey League, playing a 30-game series against AAA boys' teams between October 2009 and January 2010, as part of their preparation for the 2010 Olympics.
But to make sure the guys take these games seriously, some of the contests will count in league standings. That's new: in the past, all male-female matchups were merely exhibition.
'In the past if it didn't count for points, some of the coaches in the league didn't really consider it important and might not have played their full squad," said Darryl Henderson, coach of the midget AAA Calgary Flames.
"If someone had a bump or a bruise, they might rest him or call somebody up. [Now] if it counts in the standings, the guys are going to be a little bit hungrier than they've been before."
Not that Alberta's top 16- and 17-year-old hockey players are quaking in their skates just yet. The midget teams are only now starting tryouts, so the young guys are still battling for spots on the team, as well as starting a new year of high school.
The midget coaches, though, are looking ahead to the schedule to see how the new agreement between Hockey Canada and the Alberta Midget Hockey League will affect them. The deal is that the first time each midget team faces the National Women's Team will be an official AMHL game (excluding a tournament in September).
For the Red Deer Optimist Rebels, it so happens that their first game of the season on Oct. 2 will be against the women. The major difference, of course, between the men's and women's game is that the women's game bans body checking. Coach Doug Quinn would rather play the women later in the season.
"Is it a different style for our team to play? Yeah, it is, but if you're going to play this game, you need to adjust to whatever your opponents bring," said Quinn. "If they have skill, finesse or they're fast, or they have physical presence, you have to adjust to it."
Quinn, who's in his first year as coach of the Red Deer midget team, watched the women's national squad play an exhibition game against Red Deer last year and came away impressed with their speed, work ethic and systems.
NO BODY CHECKING
Still, he figures the guys' team, in trying to avoid body checking, was a little too kind to the women, who won 4-2. This year, he doesn't want his players to make that mistake -- and he has a warning for other midget teams.
"After watching them play last year, there's no way that any team should be underestimating them," Quinn said. "This is a good opportunity for us to play a team that will bring a different style than anything we're going to see this year."
This week, the women's squad has been playing its first major international tournament of the season, the 2009 Hockey Canada Cup in Vancouver, B.C., against Finland, Sweden and the U.S. Semis are tomorrow (Saturday) with the final Sunday. Canada will also compete in the 2009 4-Nations Cup in November in Finland, and play six games throughout the season against the U.S. In total,
Canada's women's team will play at least 55 games in the lead-up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, which begin on Feb. 13, 2010.