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Canadian women touring Sochi

Hockey team gets taste of city over next week

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CALGARY -- The Canadian women's hockey team will see palm trees and beaches and feel tropical temperatures when they arrive in Sochi, Russia, this week.

This isn't a vacation, however, as they intend to skate hard in the Black Sea resort city that will host the Winter Olympics next February.

The Canadian women depart today on a trip designed to be a physical and mental orientation to the Games environment.

They're scheduled to play the Russian women's team Sept. 8 and Sept. 10 at the secondary rink Shayba -- the venue for the preliminary-round games of the Olympic women's tournament -- before returning Sept. 11.

The Canadians will practise and dryland train, as well as tour the athletes village and the city where they intend to defend the gold medal.

"I look at it as a test event for us," captain Hayley Wickenheiser said. "We're playing two games against Russia. Competition is important, but it's secondary to figuring out what the venues are like and where you are in proximity and what kind of food you need to eat.

"We've got a young group that hasn't done a lot of international travel, so it's about adjusting to time change and being expected to perform. I tell the girls we're doing 'Rocky' in Russia."

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There won't be snow to pull a sled through as Sylvester Stallone did in Rocky IV. Sochi is on the same latitude as southern France and in a zone that supports palm trees. The forecasted high next week is 30 degrees.

Head coach Dan Church wants to see his 27 Olympic hopefuls persevere and perform through the fog of severe jet lag. They've been training full-time in Calgary since Aug. 6 and their bodies are still adjusting to a heavy workload.

"We have to be good at playing a little tired," Church said. "We have to train through this period. The result of the games is secondary to what we need to do to prepare for the overall picture.

"First and foremost it's to be in the environment. Secondly, we want to continue to develop our players and the team, push some of the systems play we want to implement and finish off this five-week training block with some really good games."

He has built one "beach day" into their schedule and some time to explore Sochi.

"A lot of people don't realize you can train as hard as you want, but if you don't rest hard, the training isn't as effective," Church said.

The majority of the players and Church will experience Russia for the first time. Wickenheiser travelled to the country once when she played men's pro hockey in Finland.

But the veteran of five Olympic Games is anxious to see what Sochi has in store for her and her teammates.

"I'm just curious about the venue," Wickenheiser said. "The only thing that matters to me is the rink. I could sleep in a cardboard box."

The 35-year-old from Shaunavon, Sask., has added her voice to widespread criticism of anti-gay laws Russia passed in June. The legislation bans promotion of "non-traditional" sexual relations, which makes Pride events illegal and muzzles gay organizations.

A debate is underway on how gay athletes, or athletes who have gay family members or friends at the Games, will be treated in Sochi.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge says he's received written assurances from the Russian government that everyone will be welcome in Sochi "regardless of sexual orientation" but it is unclear what would happen to athletes or fans if they engaged in behaviour deemed illegal under Russian law.

Wickenheiser says she won't censor herself if she's asked about the controversy while in Russia.

"I feel this is the way most athletes and most people in the free world think about it," she said. "I do think what they're doing is discriminating against human rights. I just think it's the 21st century. It's 2014. We have to not let those things happen."

The Canadian Olympic Committee has trumpeted its support of Canadian athletes participating in Pride events across the country throughout this summer.

Speedskaters Denny Morrison, Anastasia Bucsis and Shannon Rempel, as well as luger Sam Edney will walk in Calgary's Pride Parade today.

The Russian women's hockey team won the bronze medal at April's world hockey championship in Ottawa. It was the country's first medal since taking bronze in 2001.

After years of neglect, the Russian Hockey Federation is investing in female hockey because the host country wants a medal to add to its total in Sochi. Former NHL player Alexei Yashin is the team's general manager.

"They have dramatically improved their game," Wickenheiser said. "In talking to some of the players... they really like Alexei Yashin and they really feel he cares about them and is invested in them as hockey players.

"I think for the first time ever, they have a spark of hope. They want to train hard. I know some of the training they've been doing. It's the old Russian Red Army way."

Russia's support of women's hockey has come too late to challenge Canada and the U.S. for gold in Sochi, but Wickenheiser feels the country's talent makes it capable of becoming a legitimate rival for the North Americans.

"If they did invest in their program over the next five or six years, of any country they could do it," she said.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2013 B12

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