New world order in women’s hockey on display at Four Nations Cup

The Four Nations Cup in Kitchener, Ont., starting Tuesday could provide some aftershocks.

Canada, Sweden, the U.S. and Finland participate in the annual international women’s hockey tournament, which opens with Sweden taking on Finland followed by Canada versus the U.S. (7:30 p.m. ET) at the Kitchener Memorial Auditorium.

The final is Saturday.

Sweden debunked the long-held notion that nothing ever changes in women’s hockey by upsetting the U.S. in the semifinal of the Olympic Games in February and thwarting an expected Canada-U.S. showdown for gold.

But even before that, the U.S. had beaten Canada in the final of the 2005 world championship for the Americans’ first world title. And Sweden beat perennial third-place finisher Finland that year for the Swedes’ first world championship medal.

There is still a substantial gap between those four countries and the rest of the world, which makes the Four Nations Cup an important event in the eyes of Canadian team veteran Danielle Goyette.

“For me, it’s as high as the world championship because you have the four best teams there,” Goyette said. “You don’t have an easy game.

“You have to be ready every day and that’s what I like about it.”

Canada is bringing almost all the forwards who helped the country win Olympic gold, but head coach Melody Davidson has incorporated some new players on defence and in goal in order to evaluate them for future inclusion on the national team.

That doesn’t mean she’s not interested in winning the tournament.

“In Canada, that goes without saying. It’s automatic,” Davidson said.

Goaltender Shannon Szabados of Edmonton and defencemen Annie Guay of Rouyn-Noranda, Que., and Bobbi Jo Slusar of Swift Current, Sask., will make their national team debuts.

Canada has won the tournament eight times since it began in 1996. The U.S. is the only other country to win the event, in 1997 and 2003.

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The expectation is that Olympic runner-up Sweden arrives galvanized by its best result ever.

“I think they’re going to be more confident than they have been in the past,” U.S. forward Krissy Wendell said. “I think they’re going to be fired up to prove it wasn’t a fluke for them.”

Olympic hero Kim Martin is a goaltender who can steal a game on her own and if she is on her game in Kitchener, the Swedes are a threat.

The U.S. squad, which settled for bronze in Turin, has been overhauled with Wisconsin head coach Mark Johnson, also a player on the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad, taking over as head coach from Ben Smith.

The Americans, who had a flu bug run through their camp in Ann Arbour, Mich., last week, will have nine players making their national team debut, but retained established players such as veterans Wendell, Natalie Darwitz, Julie Chu and Angela Ruggiero.

The international women’s calendar is quiet in non-Olympic years. These teams are not scheduled to meet again until next April at the 2007 world women’s hockey championship in Winnipeg.

“It’s a rare opportunity to really gauge yourself against the rest of the world this time of year and see where you are at and also play great games in front of big crowds,” Canadian forward Hayley Wickenheiser said.

“We’re in Canada and in Kitchener. It’s going to be a packed rink and that’s exciting.”

A quick look at the 2006 Four Nations Cup:

What: National women’s hockey teams from Canada, Sweden, the U.S. and Finland.

Where: Kitchener, Ont.

When: Tuesday to Saturday.

Format: The two teams with best round-robin records meet in Saturday’s final. The other two meet for bronze.

Players to watch: Forward Hayley Wickenheiser (Canada); Goaltender Kim Martin (Sweden); Forward Sarah Parsons (U.S.)