GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Bailey Bram and Jocelyne Larocque admit to apprehension in these meat-grinder days of their Olympic journey but the overwhelming vibe they're giving off is based on the glorious joys of playing a game for a living.
The two Manitoba products who grew up playing minor hockey in Ste. Anne before shipping off to major U.S. college programs will know in just over a week's time if they have earned roster spots to play for Team Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Hockey Canada will trim three more players from the roster, likely prior to Dec. 27th and neither Bram nor Larocque are sure things.
The duo are expected to be in the lineup for Canada tonight in a match here against Team USA at Ralph Engelstad Arena and both were expecting a strong contingent of family and friends to make the drive over the border.
'This is so cool. It's surreal. To me, this is like playing in the NHL'
"My grandmother (Cecile Dyck) has never seen me play live for Team Canada. Just on TV," said the 25-year-old Larocque. "I've got a bunch of family and some friends coming down. I'm trying not to focus on that and just worry about the game. This is still a pretty important game for me."
Behind Canada's bench for the first time will be Kevin Dineen, who was announced earlier this week as Brad Church's replacement, and with final roster decisions looming, Larocque and Bram need to have a good showing.
"We were told about a month ago that we'd know the final roster before Christmas but with the coaching change they have pushed it back a bit," said Larocque. "It can be kind of nerve-wracking but at the same time it's something you can't control so you can't dwell on it. I just need to play my game and not worry about any distractions."
Bram says she's living in the moment and on Thursday her smile kept sneaking back on to her face.
"This is so cool. It's surreal. To me, this is like playing in the NHL. They treat us like royalty and it's eat, sleep and drink hockey. This has been one of the greatest times of my life. I'm enjoying every day. Coming to the rink and trying to get better and pulling a Team Canada jersey on. How could it be better?" asked Bram. "We play this game then go back to Calgary for a few days of practice and then home for Christmas. I think we'll find out about the final cuts right after Christmas so it's pretty stressful too but I just have to focus on working hard and playing my game. Hopefully they like my game."
'It's a great atmosphere and they have a great chemistry as a group
Bram took a deep breath when asked about her beginnings as a hockey player leading to the point.
"My dad had me on skates as soon as I could walk. We had a rink in our backyard. I started playing on a team when I was four. I had older brothers so I always looked up to them and tried to follow in their footsteps," said the 23-year-old. "Now I'm here. It's pretty cool to be here. It's been a long journey. I played with boys in our town and then I moved on to Balmoral Hall. That was the first girls team I ever played on. Then I went off to school and now I've had the opportunity to be here. It's such a rare and great opportunity to be able to put this jersey on every day."
Bram was asked what Dineen will get when he puts her in the lineup.
"Hard worker. Good in our end. Good on the penalty kill and good on the bench pumping up the girls," she said. "Our program at Mercyhurst, if you didn't play the system you didn't play. So I know how to be disciplined and do what the coach wants."
Larocque feels the pressure but has no complaints.
"For us, this is as close to playing in the NHL. We travel, we train and we play hockey," she said. "You walk into work everyday and put on a Team Canada jersey. Of course, I want to go to Sochi but this has already been an incredible experience."
Dineen was fired by the Florida Panthers in early November and reached out to Hockey Canada CEO Bob Nicholson about an opportunity to coach with Canada's men's program at the world championships this spring. When Church abruptly left the program last week saying he felt there was a lack of confidence in his ability to coach Canada to gold, Nicholson called Dineen and a match was quickly struck.
"I'm thrilled and it's a great honour to be working under that maple leaf. I've had a few chances as a player and now I'm getting to do it as a coach," said the long-time NHLer. "I'm excited for this unexpected opportunity. One of the advantages of this job is being under the Team Canada group. The support is incredible. They've been going for a good five or six months and I'm hopping on board and right now I'm trying to establish that I'm 100 per cent committed. I already know that's the case with the players. It's a great atmosphere and they have a great chemistry as a group."
Bram says tonight's game won't look or smell like an exhibition game.
"It's just a Friday night game in the middle of the winter but it's not. It's Canada against the U.S. It'll be physical and it'll be hard fought. These games are always bloodbaths. I love playing in them," said Bram.
USA Hockey said late Thursday there are still tickets available at Ticketmaster for tonight's game which will be televised on NBCSN.
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