USA hockey preps for Four Nations

HAMDEN, Conn. -- Caitlin Cahow sits in her chair, glasses pushed up and brow furrowed as she gazes at a thick law textbook. She's the picture of a student in every respect, except for her surroundings.

Instead of sitting in a library, the two-time Olympian is sitting in the ice rink at Quinnipiac University, and in a few moments, she will put down the book and start focusing on a different type of erudition entirely: representing Team USA at 2011 Four Nations Cup in Nykoping, Sweden, from Nov. 9-13.

The Four Nations Cup is an annual tournament held between the top four women's ice hockey teams: Canada, the United States, Finland and Sweden. The Americans will enter this year's tournament as the defending world champions, having won the gold medal last April in a 3-2 overtime win against fierce rival Team Canada. Team USA starts play against Sweden on Wednesday.

To prepare for the tournament, USA Hockey held a week-long camp featuring select players from its U-18 national team and members of the national team system who have graduated from college. Players currently in college remained with their teams until they joined their teammates in Sweden. Such a set-up creates a unique training environment in which the young up-and-comers lace up against veterans like defenseman Cahow, who will be playing in her sixth Four Nations Cup.

"It is about propelling everyone forward the way college kids are with their university teams, and giving everyone a boost in the middle of their season," Cahow said about the unique camp system mixing college players with national team members.

There are 15 Olympians on this year's Four Nation's Cup roster, including Cahow, Julie Chu and Jenny Potter. Other players without Olympic experience come with national team time, such as Josephine Pucci, Kendall Coyne, Brianna Decker and Jen Schoullis. Michelle Picard is the only true newcomer, making her national team debut with this tournament.

The pre-Four Nations camp allowed those older players competing in Sweden in one week's time to shake off any rust that may have accumulated in the at-times sparse post-collegiate hockey climate. It also acts as a checkpoint for Team USA as it builds toward the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and as a way to evaluate whether present and future national team players are putting in the work when USA Hockey isn't watching.

Coach Katey Stone is pleased with the performances of the younger generation, marked by improvement both on and off the ice.

"Every year that we do this, the kids are more prepared because the USA hockey system is continuing to improve to the point where kids are exposed to international play earlier, they get to go to festivals, they get to be on a team, they are better exposed to strength and conditioning, all of these little things," Stone said. "So that makes it a much easier transition. They may be a little nervous, they may be a little intimidated, but they're not showing it."

The extent to which the roster will undergo changes to include some of the younger players by the 2014 Olympics remains to be seen. But Cahow, who has been juggling law school with her training, doesn't hide how impressed she is with the younger players.

"No one in the room is a rookie," Cahow said. "Everyone has at least been a part of an August festival or Christmas camp, and most of have already played internationally. The younger players have a heck of a lot more experience than I did going into my first Olympics. ... They are so mature about how they approach the game."

The depth of talent at the younger levels bodes well for Team USA as it gets ready for the Four Nations, and in April, when they look to defend their title at the 2012 world championships, to be played on American soil in Burlington, Vt.

The Sochi Games are still two years away, and Team USA is looking to build in all the right ways.

"What we're seeing is that every outing we're getting better," Stone said. "We may or may not produce the same result, but might have multiple levels of success anyway. And we're continuing to measure those and we're seeing individual and collective improvement. And that is what we're trying to do. This is not a sprint, it's a marathon. We're building toward Sochi and we'll make decisions and try things out so that when the time comes we feel like we'll be as prepared as we can be."

The Four Nations Cup will be an opportunity to work on those incremental gains as Team USA looks to peak in Sochi. The tournament is also another opportunity for a group of women to represent America at the highest level of international competition, an opportunity that never loses its thrill.

"The smile says it all," Cahow said, in reference to the privilege of donning the USA jersey yet again. "As soon as I think about it, I smile. I'm a wordy person, but it's not even worth trying to describe. It's amazing. The best feeling I could have."

And obviously a feeling worth putting down her law studies for a bit for a trip to Sweden.

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