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Young guns assuming bigger roles with Team Canada

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OTTAWA -- The most recent additions to the Canadian women's hockey team have already had their trial by fire.

Forward Bailey Bram and defencemen Courtney Birchard, Laura Fortino and Lauriane Rougeau experienced the highest high and the lowest low in their first women's world hockey championship last year in Burlington, Vt.

The Canadians opened that tournament with a shocking 9-2 loss to the host U.S., but beat the Americans 5-4 in overtime in the final for Canada's first world championship gold since 2007.

"In the first game, when it was five-nothing, I hadn't even stepped on the ice yet," Bram recalls. "I was so nervous. It was my first game ever with the big team."

Games against the American women in world championships and Olympic Games are the stiffest test of a Canadian player.

They may be trailing their teammates in that type of experience, but Canada's four newcomers feel they've learned much in the few times they've faced the U.S.

"There's a lot of lessons," Rougeau says. "Keep calm during the game because sometimes as a young rookie on the team, you can get nervous with the puck and you can see the Americans coming with great speed.

"You can have confidence on the ice and you have more time than you think, so you just can't panic."

Rougeau of Beaconsfield, Que., and Hamilton's Fortino are defensive partners and in their senior year at Cornell University. Birchard of Mississauga, Ont., and Bram of Ste. Anne, play for the CWHL's Brampton Thunder.

They represent a sizable chunk of Canada's roster at this year's world championship in Ottawa and possibly of Canada's 2014 Olympic team too.

The four will most likely be invited to try out for the Olympic team. So while they aim for another gold medal in Ottawa, they also want to entrench themselves in Canada's lineup.

Canada concludes the preliminary round today against Finland in a game that will decide first place in Pool A. The hosts can clinch a berth in Monday's semifinals with a victory.

Captain Hayley Wickenheiser and alternate captain Caroline Ouellette sat out Wednesday's 13-0 win over Switzerland with upper-body injuries.

Canadian head coach Dan Church sounded more optimistic about Ouellette rejoining the team for Friday's game than Wickenheiser.

"Caroline is doing well today and making progress and that's very good," Church said Thursday. "Hayley... I think we have to take her hour by hour just for how she's feeling. It's relative to some pain that she's feeling."

Bram saw more ice time in this year's world championship opener -- a 3-2 shootout win over the U.S. -- when Wickenheiser left the game in the second period.

Canada trailed 2-0 after two periods in Tuesday's game, so the victory was another challenge overcome for the more novice players in the lineup.

"It's always kind of intimidating to play the Americans when you're a rookie," Birchard says. "Coming into this year, I think I have a little bit more confidence as well as the other players who are coming in here for the second time."

If Canada is short-staffed again up front today, it's not just more ice time for 22-year-old Bram, but for the three 23-year-old defenders as well. Some of the rearguards will play a few shifts at forward.

Here is a quick look at the four players:

-- Bailey Bram -- Made the world championship team as a 13th forward because of her versatility. At 5-7, 142 pounds, can play top-six minutes or make an impact filling a role.

-- Courtney Birchard -- Converted from forward to defence during her college career at New Hampshire. Uses her 5-9, 151-pound frame to battle for the puck and has a cannon shot.

-- Laura Fortino -- Not big at 5-4 and 144 pounds, but incorporated a physical element and responsible defence into her offensive game. "They told me flat out that if I wanted to ever make this team, I had to balance out my game and be great at both areas of the ice," Fortino says.

-- Lauriane Rougeau -- Another big body at 5-8 and 166 pounds, she's a stay-at-home defender who makes the simple plays.

The experiences they're gathering in their short time on the national team will battle-harden them for the ultimate test, which is making the Olympic team and defending the gold.

"Those opportunities they got last year at the world championship really helped them develop a sense of confidence and put them in a position to make this team this year, most likely be centralized and to go into that centralized year ready to take another step in their game," Church says.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2013 C5

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