CALGARY - Part of the preparation that put the Canadian women's hockey team light years ahead of the competition en route to Olympic gold in 2006 starts again Thursday.
Canada will play four games in four days against Calgary midget triple-A teams. The tournament kicks off the women's 31-game schedule against Alberta Midget Hockey League clubs this winter as they prepare for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
The Canadian women played 21 games against AMHL clubs made up of 16-to 18-year-old males in the lead up to the Olympics in Turin, Italy. Those games were crucial to Canada's preparation and will again be instrumental for head coach Melody Davidson and the 26 women trying to make the team.
Players' strengths and weaknesses are exposed in these types of games, which helps Davidson decide her 21-player roster. It also allows the women to put what they practice into regular competitive games.
"The opportunity to play the midget teams give us a full-time schedule," Davidson said Monday. "Our practices are geared towards something and this tournament kind of kicks off that setting."
Canada made winning gold look easy in 2006 because they played more games and spent more time together than any other country.
The other three best women's hockey countries in the world - U.S., Sweden and Finland - are taking cue from Canada's success in Turin and have scheduled games this winter against males of the same age group.
They won't play as many games as Canada, however. After losing twice to the U.S. at the Hockey Canada Cup earlier this month, forward Jayna Hefford of Kingston, Ont., hopes the games against midget clubs will move them ahead of their rival by the time the Games open Feb. 12.
"Let's hope it puts us that far ahead," she said. "We have that opportunity. It's up to us to take it and grow each game and find things to make us better and make sure we find people who are going to step up in those situations."
The Canadian and U.S. women will meet up to eight more times before the Games, but the midget triple-A men provide weekly competition of a similar calibre close to their training base at Calgary's Father David Bauer Arena.
"Looking at our schedule, starting Thursday, we're playing games twice a week if not more," Hefford said. "So this is really our season starting in our mind.
"It's exciting we're going to play almost as many games as a men's NHL team would play over that period of time."
Under Davidson, Canada went 9-11-1 versus midget teams in the five months leading up to the 2006 Olympics.
A new twist in the relationship is regular-season games are now worth two points to the men in the AMHL standings and will thus have playoff implications. Canada opens the regular season Oct. 2 against Red Deer.
The men agree to not bodycheck in these games, although there is body contact as they battle for the puck along the boards and in the corners. Even without bodychecking, the physical differences of young men and women pose a challenge for Canada.
"Their natural size and their stick length I find is a huge thing because you can have a step on a player and all of a sudden, he pokes the puck and you don't expect that because you're not used to a six-foot-five reach," said Hefford. "It forces us to work on puck protection and we have to be faster and we have to move the puck a little quicker.
"We have an opportunity to be in those situations 30 times this year before we get to the Olympics Games and that's going to make us better."
Colleen Sostorics of Kennedy, Sask., says the men tend to dump and chase more than international women's teams and she doesn't mind.
"That's something that's great for us because, as a defenceman, I can work on my breaking out against hard pressure," she said.
The players also see the games as a break from the monotony of practice, which they've been doing since their last game Sept. 6 against the U.S. women. The women now get a rash of games starting Thursday against the midget triple-A Calgary Flames.
"Four games is four days sounds awesome," said forward Brianne Jenner of Oakville, Ont. "We've been practising for awhile."
Goaltender Charline Labonte of Boisbriand, Que., will not play in the tournament because of a sprained ankle she suffered Aug. 3.
Davidson has enough players to move in and out of her lineup during the tournament and isn't concerned about early-season fatigue.
"A quarter of the team is sitting out every day," she said. "We'll spread that out and use everybody to their fullest.
"We want to see people perform under pressure and perform when they're tired. With the finals on Sunday, there's something to shoot for in the end."
Sostorics recalls playing in the same pre-season tournament in 2005 and Canada lost all of its games.
"We're hoping to change that this year," she declared.