Women’s hockey fans know all about the Olympic Winter Games and the IIHF World Championship. But in terms of the third-most important tournament on the calendar — at least as far as the players are concerned — that has to be the Four Nations Cup.
“I think most of the girls on the team would say Four Nations is right behind the Olympics and World Championships,” said Julie Chu, a three-time Olympian and forward on this year’s team. “I think Four Nations is always a great way to kick off our official season. It’s a quick tournament, but we’re really excited to play it.”
The 2012 Four Nations Cup — a rapid-fire, four-team tournament — will take place this week in Vantaa and Kerava, Finland. Team USA will play Sweden (Tuesday), Canada (Wednesday) and Finland (Friday) in a round-robin format. The championship game is Saturday.
The United States and Canada have met in the Four Nations Cup title game in each of the last 10 years, with the Americans winning three times. One of those championships came last year in Sweden, where Team USA posted a 4-3 shootout victory in the first-place game.
“It was a great game,” recalled Chu, one of a dozen Olympians on the 2012 U.S. squad. “I don’t necessarily think we played our best, but the best thing is that some days you don’t always play your best and you find a way to win anyway.”
So, is USA vs. Canada a lock to be the gold-medal matchup this year?
“Just from years past, just because there have been so many U.S. vs. Canada games, I think a lot of us would say that it’s a likelihood,” Chu said. “But, at the same time, we’ve seen that upsets happen, especially if we look too far ahead.”
As far as the U.S. team is concerned, the veteran of the team is the 30-year-old Chu, a native of Fairfield, Conn. The youngster is Jincy Dunne, a 15-year-old prodigy from O’Fallon, Mo. And in between them is a talented group of women that is really starting to come together.
“We’re doing well,” Chu said. “It’s not necessarily a tournament where we get a lot of practices in as a full team, but we have a lot of consistency from the last World Championship. We know each other pretty well, and we’re looking good. We’re excited and we’re enthusiastic.”
In particular, Chu is looking forward to seeing how a couple of the younger players fare in the Four Nations Cup.
“We get a chance to put on that USA jersey only a few times a year, so everyone comes prepared,” said Chu, who plays for the Montreal Stars in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“We have a lot of great younger players that are talented, including a few that haven’t been a part of our program before, so I’m really excited to see Lyndsey Fry from Harvard, and Jincy Dunne was just added to our roster as well … so it’ll be great to see her get out there and have some fun, and she’s doing very well so far.”
Dunne is one of five U.S. defensemen born in the 1990s. It’s a young unit, but Canada has a young defense corps, as well, Chu said.
“I think in a lot of ways they’re very similar to us,” Chu said of Team Canada. “They’ve got a lot of size up front and on the defensive end. Their goaltenders have always been really strong. We’re going to have to be sure we get a lot of shots to the net, but also a lot of screens and traffic as well.”
And that is one message that Chu will stress to her younger teammates. As one of the Team USA leaders, Chu has come a long way since her first Four Nations Cup back in 2000.
“When you’re younger, you’re just enjoying it,” she said. “You’re trying to soak up every moment, but you’re a little bit lost and you’re on your own little island, because you’re not as familiar with everything going on. But I was really fortunate to have some great veteran players that took me under their wing. And now that I am one of the veteran players, I try to do the same for them.”
In addition to Team USA competing in the Four Nations Cup, three other U.S. national teams will be in action this week. The U.S. National Under-18 team will host the Under-18 Four Nations Cup in Ann Arbor, Mich. The Under-17 team will be in Switzerland to compete in the Under-17 version of the same tournament. And the U.S. Junior Select Team will lace up their skates in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, for the World Junior A Challenge.
The IIHF World Women’s Championship is set for April in Ottawa.