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Women's Team Eager for Semifinals

02/16/2014, 11:30am MST
By Cameron Eickmeyer - USAHockey.com

SOCHI, Russia - As usual, the pace at Sunday's U.S. Women's National Team practice at the Shayba Practice Rink was up-tempo with little downtime, which has been all Team USA has had for four days leading up to Monday's semifinal matchup against Sweden.

Goaltender Jessie Vetter, who earned the starting nod from head coach Katey Stone, said she isn't worried about the team developing any rust during their four days away from Olympic competition. Monday's game is at 7:30 a.m. ET and will air live on NBC Sports Network.

“As a team we’re excited,” she said, adding that the long stretches between games in the buildup to the Olympics helped the team refocus after losing their final game of the preliminary round against Canada. “Throughout the entire year we’ve done a good job keeping our practices sharp.”

The 3-2 loss to Canada last week was on the team's mind and led to what Stone called an introspective and team-wide push to learn from and to own their mistakes.

“There was some strong discussion on Friday,” she said. “You’re either going to take the moment or the moment is going to take you, so you have to make that decision.”

Captain Meghan Duggan said the 45-minute video session helped the players prepare for the final two games of their long season.

“No one’s taking (criticism) to heart," she said. "We have the luxury of having great coaches who show us our mistakes so that we never make them again. It was a great video session followed by a great practice."

What has come into full focus for the U.S. team is Sweden, which stunned rival Finland on Saturday to reach the semifinals. Stone credited Sweden's game-plan against the Finns for sparking the upset.

“They play a great game through the neutral zone,” she said. "They handle the puck well, are patient and their goaltender plays well behind them so we have to be ready.”

When asked about a potential rematch with Canada in the gold-medal game, Stone said her team has spent all season looking at only the moment ahead and isn't going to start looking ahead now.

“Everything we’ve done is to face what’s in front of us all along,” she said. “This is a big game for us tomorrow and we’re just going to do our best.”

Sweden upset the U.S. in the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy, and while Stone said she recognizes the correlation, she doesn't think it factors in to Monday's game.

“That stuff is in the past," she said. "These are totally different teams, [and a] totally different environment."

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When it comes to women’s hockey, there is no argument that USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have the two premier programs in the world. Earlier this month, their young talent took to the ice in Lake Placid, New York, as a part of the U18 and U22 Select Series.

While there were several athletes on both teams who competed for their country in such an event for the first time, it also marked a special occasion for Melissa Szkola. An experienced official who has worked a handful of International Ice Hockey Federation events, Lake Placid marked her first USA-Canada affair. USA Hockey caught up with the Michigan native to talk about the amazing international experience and her evolving officiating career.


USA Hockey: What was it like to be a part of the U22 and U18 Select Series’

Melissa Szkola: The experience was wonderful. It was fantastic. We’ve essentially got the two best teams in the world competing against each other, so the learning experience, working with the officials that we have, is always amazing. You leave here a better person, a better official; that’s what we’re here for. That’s what I look forward to the most at these big-time events: the level of hockey and what you get out of it as a whole.

USAH: How did you first get into officiating?

Szkola: It’s been nine years since I got my start. I was a competitive figure skater and my older brother played hockey, so I’ve always been around the game, but it was my husband who actually got me into the officiating side of it. When we started dating, he was a roller and ice hockey official. He asked me to come with one time and I said ‘okay.’ That’s how I got started. It’s something he and I have in common and he is my biggest supporter. I wouldn’t be here without him.

USAH: So nine years under your belt, how would you describe some of your past IIHF events?

Szkola: I’ve had a handful of experiences with international tournaments. Each one has brought a new set of skills to my plate. You learn a lot about yourself and you learn a lot from your supervisors from different countries as well. To get out and work with other female officials and learn from them and your supervisors is amazing.

Being in another country, where sometimes there aren’t people who even speak English, is a really unique experience as well. The communication that you learn to speak with non-English speaking officials really makes you appreciate what you have in common – hockey.

USAH: How did the Select Series compare to those events?

Szkola: The level of play, it’s definitely much higher at the Select Series than any of the championships that I’ve been to. I wouldn’t say that the intensity is much different, because at each level they are competing for their highest achievement. The intensity is the same, the importance is the same, but the level of play is definitely much better; it’s faster, it’s crisper. Your awareness just has to be that much higher.

USAH: Did calling a game with high-caliber players like those at the Select Series shake up any nerves?

Szkola: I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous before we got on the ice. I’ve watched Team USA and Team Canada compete before, so you know the level at which they intend to play. Being out there with it, you just know where the emotions can go sometimes. It was a little nerve-wracking before the start, but as soon as that puck drops, you have a job to do. USA Hockey does a fantastic job developing us; I feel like they wouldn’t put you out there if you weren’t ready. Once that puck drops, you’re kind of at home.

USAH: What’s next for your officiating future?

Szkola: The support that I have, not only from my hometown in Michigan, but also the support and development USA Hockey has given really sets you up for success if you want to take it in that direction. That is my goal. I do want to skate in the Olympics. Moving forward I am going to continue to improve upon each experience that I have, because you can always be better. Mistakes do get made, so you learn from those and improve yourself. 

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