Youth movement

ADAM WAZNY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:06 AM ET

SELKIRK -- Mark Johnson, head coach of the defending champion United States women's hockey team, took in the Kazakhstan practice yesterday, rested, relaxed and ready to get the 2007 Women's World Hockey Championships underway.

"I'm very comfortable where we're at," Johnson said of his team at the unusually polar Selkirk Recreational Complex. "We're fortunate the tournament is in Canada so you get a little bit of a training camp, you get to play together and practice together. Most of our girls are coming from different areas of the country, so it's a big plus."

That training camp took place in Grand Forks over the past week or so and gave Johnson and his staff a chance to see just what he has at his disposal. The U.S. program is going through some transition right now and the youth movement is in full effect, with a quarter of the roster not old enough to legally drink in their own country.

Erika Lawler and Gigi Marvin are 20 years old, while Sarah Parsons and Meghan Duggan are still in their teens (19). Rounding out the kid contingent for the Americans is Hilary Knight. The 17-year-old is still in high school, skating for Choate Rosemary Hall in the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council conference.

All that green might make a first-year coach nervous heading into his first women's worlds, but Johnson isn't concerned.

"We have a nice mix," the former U.S. Olympian and NHL player said. "We have veterans who have been to the Olympics and we have some young kids who are putting the jersey on for the first time. The biggest challenge for me as a coach is to be patient right now, but over the course of time we'll embrace the changes. It's nice to get the young players involved."

The program has been preparing for the future for some time now. At the most recent Four Nations Cup in Kitchener, Ont. this past November, Johnson and the U.S. coaching staff brought extra bodies with them in hopes of getting the players used to the intensity of international battles on foreign soil.

"Those kids are going to be a little more comfortable here now," said Johnson, whose club hammered Sweden twice in two exhibition games last week. "They'll be nervous, but at least they'll have some international flavour to them. We have a young goaltender (21-year-old Jessie Vetter) who hasn't put on the jersey yet, so it will be nice to get a couple games under her belt, just to experience the atmosphere of a tournament like this."

As for the Kazakhstan group he was watching on the ice yesterday, Johnson was a little less confident in his analysis.

"I have no idea what to expect, I haven't seen this group play," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know. I think you'll find in the early part of this tournament that teams are more concerned about what they themselves do. We'll prepare our players to play up to their capabilities. That's what we've talked about, establish some good habits early on."

The U.S. and Kazakhstan open up Group A play tonight in Selkirk (7:30 p.m.).


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