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US women’s hockey team finds home at Bedford rink

Goalie Jessie Vetter reacts to a shot by Annie Pankowski (27) during a US hockey team practice in Bedford.

JOANNE RATHE/GLOBE STAFF

Goalie Jessie Vetter reacts to a shot by Annie Pankowski (27) during a US hockey team practice in Bedford.

BEDFORD — Outside the Edge Sports Center, it’s an unseasonably warm November afternoon. Inside, 25 hockey players in red, white, and blue practice jerseys dream of cold, gray Russian winter days.

They skate through drill after drill, slapping their sticks on the ice for good play and goals scored. They go for nearly 2½ hours, taking only the briefest break for ice resurfacing.

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This is the US women’s national hockey team at work.

“Training camp is always tough and everyone’s super sore,” said forward Kelli Stack, a former Boston College standout who hopes to make her second Olympic squad. “But it’s definitely helped us bond as a team and develop on- and off-ice chemistry.”

For women’s hockey, the road to the Sochi Olympics runs through suburban Boston.

Since early September, the team has been training at the Edge in Bedford and working with strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle in Woburn. And the players have made themselves at home off the ice, taking up residence in Concord, Waltham, Winchester, Woburn, and elsewhere. While some players room together in apartments, one-third billet with host families.

The team hopes its quiet, hockey-focused life in Bedford and surrounding towns, places far from the Olympic spotlight, will translate to a gold-medal run. The United States and Canada are favorites for the Olympic title, with Finland in the mix.

“This is our main priority right now, in terms of time,” said defenseman Josephine Pucci, who took a break from her studies at Harvard to focus on making her first Olympic team and lives with a host family in Winchester. “Everything we do revolves around this. We’re here [at the rink] basically the whole day. I’ll leave my house around 9 a.m. and not get back until 4 or 5 p.m. on most days.

“[With months together], we have the opportunity to get to know each other as people, get used to each other’s style of play each and every day. We can get used to each other’s habits, know how to adjust to each other, and try to bring out the best in each other.”

Knowing that 80 days remain until the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 7, coach Katey Stone remarked that the Sochi Games are approaching with almost unbelievable speed. The women’s team will spend the next couple months training in Bedford, playing in exhibition games across the United States and Canada, finalizing its Olympic roster, and fine-tuning the lines. The 21 players headed to Russia will be determined in late December and announced Jan. 1 during the second intermission of the NHL’s annual Winter Classic.

No matter who makes the final cut, the team will have a strong Boston connection. Many of the players are very familiar with the city, having grown up here, or gone to college in the area, or both. Others have played for the Boston Blades in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Of the 25 players training in Bedford, 14 have some Boston-area tie, including nine who have played at local colleges. Stone, who holds the record for most wins by a Division 1 women’s hockey coach (402), took a year’s leave from her post as Harvard’s coach to focus on her duties with the Olympic team.

When it comes to age and experience, the squad will have plenty of diversity. The youngest player on the roster is 16-year-old defenseman Jincy Dunne, who comes from St. Louis. If she makes the team, she would become the youngest female hockey player to skate for Team USA in the Olympic Games. On the other end of the spectrum, 31-year-old forward Julie Chu hopes to make her fourth Olympic team.

“I’d like to say we’re right where we want to be, but we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Stone. “We’re still carrying 25 players, so the biggest focus right now is giving these kids a little bit more time to prove themselves to get on this roster. We’ve had a bunch of games with Canada. We went up to Four Nations and learned a lot of lessons there.

“From a physical standpoint, we’re in a good spot. We’ve got everybody playing again. It’s just a matter of starting to hone in on some of our weaknesses.”

After finishing third in the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., earlier this month, the players know nothing is guaranteed, even though the United States and Canada have dominated international women’s hockey. The US team won gold when women’s hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Games. But since then, the Canadians have taken the title and the US team has gone home from the 2002 and 2010 Olympics with silver and from the 2006 Games with bronze.

Understandably, it’s the rivalry with Canada that gets the United States fired up and, occasionally, ready to fight.

That was the case when the US team played Canada in their first exhibition game last month in Burlington, Vt. Late in the game, American forward Monique Lamoureux collided with Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados. Then, standing up for her goalie, Canadian defenseman Courtney Birchard pursued Lamoureux. That prompted Lamoureux’s twin sister, Jocelyne, and others on the US team to go after the Canadians and a fight ensued.

Stack was one of the players in the middle of the fray. She thought Lamoureux was making a play at the net, not intentionally going after the Canadian goalie. But if the situation was reversed, Stack could see the American defensemen standing up for the US goalie.

“You don’t see fights too often in women’s hockey, but that’s how intense we are and how much we care about our teammates,” said Stack. “The rivalry with Canada, that’s why all of us who are out of college are probably still playing. We are the two best teams in the world when we want to be. So, the competition is unbelievable. When people watch us play, it’s kind of the best hockey in the world, even compared to NHL hockey. I don’t think people give female hockey players enough credit. The hockey fans that are out there get a great treat when they see a Canada-US game because we’re both so passionate about what we do. And we love winning, especially when it’s against Canada. So, it’s going to be a battle.”

The United States and Canada will play four more exhibition games before the Olympics. So, that leaves plenty of opportunity for the rivalry to intensify and plenty of motivation for practices at the Edge.

Shira Springer can be reached at shira.springer@globe.com.
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