By Lynn Rutherford | April 03, 2019, 10:54 a.m. (ET)

(L) Kendall Coyne Schofield battles for the puck at the Rivalry Series on February 17, 2019 in Detroit.

 

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. -- The U.S. women’s ice hockey team begins the 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship with a big test on Thursday when it opens against Finland, the tournament’s host and third seed.

“Every opponent has different strengths,” said Bob Corkum, who took over as Team USA’s head coach for the 2018-19 season. “Our first opponent is going to be competing on home ice. They’ll bring a lot of energy, and we’ll concentrate on what we do best: puck control, good forechecking, speed — that’s our game.”

To prepare for the tournament, which takes place in Espoo, Finland, the U.S. team took part in a five-day training camp at the Northwell Health Ice Center in Long Island, the practice facility for the NHL’s New York Islanders. Passing, forechecking and shooting drills took up much of the on-ice time, with a focus on special teams on the final day of the camp.

“This time is for reinforcing your systems and teaching a few new wrinkles,” Corkum said the day before the team left for Finland. “We also had our winter training camp (Dec. 17-21). It’s not all going to stick at once. The most important thing is to make sure all the players are comfortable. The staff put a lot in front of them this week, and we’re all thrilled with the progress that was made.”

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Corkum called Team USA’s current 23-player roster a “really nice balance” of veterans and newcomers, including 14 members of the 2018 team that won an Olympic gold medal in PyeongChang. Meanwhile, six players will make their world championship debut in Espoo, including Hayley Scamurra, a standout forward in the 2019 Rivalry Series in February against Canada.

“During our scouting phase, I watched Hayley when (her NWHL pro team) Buffalo played the Boston Pride for two games,” Corkum said. “She stood out both games. She has skating skills, great puck handling, good size. She really blossomed during winter camp; she picks everything up and is very coachable. She earned the spot.”

Of course, whenever you talk women’s hockey, the storied U.S. rivalry with Canada takes center stage. Team USA has defeated its neighbors to the north in seven of the last eight world championship finals, including a 3-2 overtime win two years ago in Plymouth, Michigan. (The tournament is not held during Olympic years.) Still, Team Canada bested Team USA at the recent Rivalry Series, winning two of the three games.

“That was disappointing,” Corkum admitted. “But this is a different team. (At the Rivalry Series) we had no college players, due to their school schedule. Now they’re on our team, and they’re our future.” 

Nine players from the Rivalry Series roster have been swapped out for NCAA players who took leave from their college campuses to join Team USA. Goaltender Alex Rigsby, a member of the PyeongChang team, thinks they fit right in.

“We really try and have that great culture of everyone’s included, everyone matters, and we have fun and we work hard,” Rigsby said. “So, it’s just a great culture to be around, and I’m really excited for the newcomers to be along with us.”

“It’s the best American team we can put on the ice at this time,” Corkum said. “That’s not to say next time won’t be a little different.”

While the coach acknowledges the longtime dominance of the U.S. and Canada, he refuses to downplay other challengers. Top among that list is Finland, the 2018 Olympic bronze medalist.

“We’re going to have a pretty tough game right off the bat,” Corkum said. “Not all countries play the same game; we have to be comfortable navigating and adjusting. It’s a long tournament, and I take it one game at a time.”

Veteran defenseman Kacey Bellamy, a three-time Olympian, thinks other countries are closing the skills’ gap with the top two teams.

“The rivalry with Canada is unmatched, but at the same time, this year is the first time we have 10 teams in the tournament, which is unbelievable for the landscape of women’s hockey,” said Bellamy, a team co-captain.

“Women’s hockey is on the rise,” she added. “And I know that Finland is going to put their best foot forward.”

Bellamy played with Finnish star forward Venla Hovi in the CWHL, which ceased operations this past week.

“She’s nothing but excited and ready to go,” Bellamy said. “And of course, there are other teams that are stepping up, trying to figure out how to be on par with Canada and the U.S.” 

Forward Dani Cameranesi, another 2018 Olympian, emphasizes that international play requires everyone on Team USA to kick it up a few notches.

“At this tournament, it’s always more physical, and you have to get a little bit grittier and do things, I think, a little crisper and cleaner than elsewhere,” Cameranesi, a member of the NWHL’s Buffalo Beauts, said. “Just having that mentality really helps when you’re going overseas.” 

Still, after the five-day camp in Long Island, Team USA has its eyes firmly set on another title and, most likely, yet another showdown with Canada.

“The ultimate goal is to come out on top and have that gold medal,” Rigsby said. “For us, it’s about making sure we’re going in confident in each other, that we trust the process, and trust what we’ve been working on with the coaches.”

More on the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship

  • The 10 teams competing in Espoo were split into two groups according to their rankings. In Group A, all teams advance to the quarterfinals. The top three teams from Group B will advance, while the bottom two teams will be relegated to a lower division. A knockout system is used from the quarterfinals on.
  • Group A consists of the U.S., Canada, Finland, Russia and Switzerland, while Group B comprises Sweden, Japan, Germany, Czech Republic and France.
  • There are no longer byes to the semifinals for the top two teams in Group A. This means the U.S. and Canada will play quarterfinal games against Group B opponents.
  • In Espoo, Canada will play its opening game against fifth-ranked Switzerland.
  • In the 18 years the IIHF Women’s World Championship has been held, Canada has won 10 titles while Team USA has won eight.

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.