Team USA will carry a roster heavy on post-grad players into the 2015 Four Nations tournament. That's a switch from the young roster that won the gold medal at the 2015 IIHF Women's World Championships (WWC), but it's also a deliberate choice by Coach Ken Klee.
While the Four Nations and WWC tournaments are important for USA Hockey, there's no denying that almost everything they do is tied to the Olympics and the goal of winning the gold medal, in some way.
"Honestly, we look forward to this. We obviously train for our NWHL teams, but ultimately we all want to be able to play in the Olympics and win a gold medal. We look forward to these tournaments to play together at top speed and top performances," said Brianna Decker.
To that end, Klee, who celebrated his one-year anniversary as the women's senior team coach in August, is constantly looking at ways to assess the full pool of candidates.
"It’s kind of been a building process since I came aboard. I’ve had certain players in and out throughout that time. This time we’re a little more post-grad heavy then college heavy, and early on we were a little more college heavy, so it’s given us a good mix as well as giving us a good look and getting to look at a lot of different players...This is our player pool and we’re trying to make sure we get a look and put them in good situations where they can be successful. Obviously we have a core group, but it’s good to have some new faces in and new players in," said Klee.
This is the first time Klee will have coached Kelli Stack, who took a year off from international competitions after Sochi. It's also the first time Jordan Smelker has been invited to compete with Team USA.
One interesting addition to the roster that will be worth watching is Allie Thunstrom, who was on the 2010 Four Nations team and who competed in the 2014 Olympic trials in speedskating. Klee invited her back to Team USA and is excited to see her speed on the ice. Kendall Coyne provides incredible pace, so adding Thunstrom could give the team a lot of depth, as well as a different type of attack than those brought by Hilary Knight and Brianna Decker.
All three of the goalies on the roster, Jessie Vetter, Alex Rigsby, and Brianne McLaughlin, played a period in their public scrimmage. Klee would not commit to a goalie plan or rotation, saying he would make those decisions once in Sweden.
Klee admitted that he's not a coach who sticks too closely to a hard and fast plan, as injuries and many other outside elements can affect how his team looks when it hits the ice.
One phrase came up consistently when talking to Klee and six different players -- puck possession. Klee himself talked about using advanced statistics -- as much as he can with limited staff, equipment, and facilities -- but stressed that he expects the team to possess the puck for a majority of any game.
"We play a really strong puck-possession game. We’re looking to maintain puck possession kind of all the time, so if we don’t like what we see, we’re going to be content with pulling back and regrouping and doing other things maybe that are a little more unconventional for a normal style of hockey...That’s kind of my philosophy -- that the team that has the puck more wins more often than not and that’s they way I want us to keep progressing," said Klee.
If the obvious goal is to win the tournament, then the secondary goal, both for the team and for individual players, is to continue to grow and build on their base.
The transition from the college or the pro game to the international one brings a big increase in the speed of play. Most of the players on the roster have been practicing two times a week with a game on the weekend. Coming to Chicago and practicing twice a day, plus strength and conditioning, can be difficult.
Shiann Darkangelo spoke of her NWHL team, the Connecticut Whale, and how she felt they were finding more cohesion once they had more games under their belt.
With just a week of camp and games already on Wednesday, Darkangelo admitted that Team USA didn't have that luxury. But all any of the players can do is "know your role and every time you get on the ice, work hard and do what the coaches ask."
Whatever it is that Klee and his assistants are teaching, the team seems to be on board. Vetter said that one of the reasons she's so excited about this tournament is because "we’re really buying into (the coaching staff's) way of doing things."
Vetter is the veteran and eldest member of this roster -- she'll be competing in her eighth Four Nations tournament.
"I think any opportunity you have to be with this group, it’s a blast. I think that’s the biggest reason why we do it; we still come and enjoy to play hockey and grow and get better and obviously wearing that jersey is something special. Every time you get a chance to do that, it doesn’t get old," said Vetter.
Smelker is on the other end of the spectrum. Her only other Team USA appearance was in the U-22 series against Canada in 2012.
"It’s been amazing. I was kind of surprised to be invited to this. I’m just taking it day-by-day and learning from everyone around me. My main goal is to get better every day. Just do the little things and what is asked of me and just take everything for what it is and not try to think too hard about it and just kind of play because that’s why you’re here, just to play hockey," she said.
"I’m most looking forward to just putting on that (Team USA) jersey. I’ve never been able to do that."
Though the team does have a post-graduate focus for this tournament, there are still a few college players on the roster, and many of them stayed at their respective schools to attend classes, as opposed to being at camp.
In order to have a full roster of players in Chicago for even drills and scrimmages, four U-18 players were invited to join the camp as non-roster invitees. Alex Woken and Patricia Marshall have both committed to the University of Minnesota. Presley Norby has committed to the University of Wisconsin, while Natalie Snodgrass has committed to the University of Connecticut.
The four youngsters were chosen so that they could experience a week of life in residence with the senior team and take those lessons back to the U-18 team. Though geography and school schedules played a bit into who was chosen, these four players were ultimately picked for their potential and leadership abilities. Though Coach Klee and the senior team members had glowing things to say about the U-18's play on the ice, the focus for them this week was as much about taking in habits off the ice. Eating habits, strength training, and off-ice demeanor are all things that these players can repeat back with their junior teams.
"I think it’s easier in my eyes just to see how they perceive things just because I’ve been in there shoes before playing as a U-18 with the older girls. But I’ve been really, really impressed with them. Their skill level on the ice, how they handle themselves off the ice, it’s been good to see the future of our program," said Decker.
On a personal note:
The team played a scrimmage against a local boys' team that packed the rink, with people sitting on stairs. At Friday's evening practice, I met a couple of moms who had their young daughters there to watch and cheer. One girl had a USA Hockey-signed flag that she wore like a cape and her mom joked she'd be wearing it to bed like a toga. The moms were positively glowing about the experience they'd had with Team USA that week, with the girls getting all the autographs they could want, lining up for high fives as the team entered and left the rink, and getting personal time with some of the players to get advice and ask questions. It was awesome to see young hockey players get so excited about the game.
Mark your calendars:
Team USA had one last practice in Chicago on Saturday morning and left from O'Hare for Sweden. They face host team Sweden on Wednesday, November 4 at 7 PM local time, 1 PM Eastern time.
They'll face Canada on a short turn-around on Thursday, November 5 at 6:30 PM local time, 12:30 PM Eastern time. They round out the tournament against Finland on Saturday, November 7 at 4:30 PM local time, 10:30 AM Eastern time.