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Canadian women's hockey team cautious after COVID cases, no more games until Beijing

CALGARY — Canada's women's hockey team won't play any more games before the Winter Olympics and will enter a bubble to ensure players can board a plane to Beijing in less than a month.

CALGARY — Canada's women's hockey team won't play any more games before the Winter Olympics and will enter a bubble to ensure players can board a plane to Beijing in less than a month.

The women have yet to reunite as a full team since COVID-19 infiltrated their ranks in December. 

"I've got about half of our group back with us and the other half joining us here shortly," Hockey Canada director of hockey operations Gina Kingsbury told The Canadian Press.

"Everyone is doing very well. We're all double-vaccinated."

Canada's Olympic women's hockey roster has yet to be named. Canada opens the preliminary round Feb. 2 against Switzerland two days before Beijing's opening ceremonies.

Canada's three remaining Rivalry Series games against the United States that were called off — two were scheduled this week in Alberta — and next week's game against an Alberta Junior Hockey League men's team will not be played.

Everyone travelling to Beijing for the Olympic Games must test negative in two pre-departure tests. If either test is positive, China says do not board the plane. 

"We're at a critical window of time right now leading into Beijing, so we've got to be extra careful," Kingsbury said.

"We want to play as much as possible, but with the 14-day window ahead of traveling to Beijing being such a critical and dangerous time frame, it's not worth the risk to play any games and to bring in any external people into our environment."

The 26 women remaining in centralization must be trimmed to 23 ahead of the Jan. 19 deadline for Hockey Canada to nominate its team to the Canadian Olympic Committee.

"We'll be making that announcement before that for sure," Kingsbury said.

The United States, which beat Canada 3-2 in a shootout for Olympic gold in 2018, unveiled its Beijing roster during Saturday's NHL Winter Classic in Minneapolis with the players on hand at Target Field for the announcement.

The Canadians will sequester when they congregate in Calgary again.

"We're looking at trying to secure our group as tight knit as we possibly can be here moving forward, have everyone on site and protect ourselves as much as we can so that everyone is eligible to go to China and compete at the Games," Kingsbury said.

"We're looking at bubbling our group, kind of something similar to what we did before world championships. We'll be really restricted to the hotel, the rink and that's pretty much it and we'll make sure that we're avoiding anyone outside of our group and even being very careful with one another in our group as well.

"The on-ice piece, we can't avoid that. We have to practise as a team, we've got to compete as a team."

Canada and the U.S. played six of nine Rivalry Series games, with Canada winning the last two in overtime Dec. 15 and Dec. 17 in St. Louis for a 4-1-1 record in the series.

The Canadian women flew charter flights to games in the U.S. to avoid mixing with the public on commercial airlines, Kingsbury said, but the virus still intruded upon their team.

The remaining games Dec. 20 in Minnesota, Jan. 3 in Edmonton and Jan. 6 in Red Deer were called off. The Olympic roster was to be named Dec. 22, but that was also delayed as the women went into their holiday break.

Goaltenders Ann-Renée Desbiens, Emerance Maschmeyer and Kristen Campbell were already named to the squad, leaving three skaters to be released from 23. 

Twenty-nine arrived in Calgary in July to begin Olympic centralization. Canada edged the Americans in overtime to win world championship gold Aug. 31 in Calgary. 

Canada's women have played a combined 22 games in centralization including five against Junior A men's teams and five against Canada's top under-17 males in November's Capital City Challenge in Ottawa.

Kingsbury, head coach Troy Ryan and his coaching staff will draw data from those games to make personnel decisions and plot Olympic strategy.

"We've played a lot of games, we've done a great job evaluating our team here throughout the first half of our season," Kingsbury said.

 "As much as these (cancelled) games would have been great, it would have been fine-tuning and would have been a little bit of an add-on here in the second half.

"I think the practices that we're going to see with our group now is going to be probably what we need in the end. We'll make sure that we make the most of every single day and we're ready to compete in Beijing."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 4, 2021.

Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press