WESLEY CHAPEL — The marquee matchup, of course, is the United States vs. Canada. And if everything shakes out, it’s a matchup fans will see twice this week.
Canada and the United States have meet in the finals of nearly every major women’s hockey international tournament, including all but one of the 16 Four Nations Cups, which takes place this week. Round-robin play begins Tuesday at the Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel with the third-place and championship games Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena.
The event, which includes Finland and Sweden, is the last tournament before the Winter Olympics, set for Feb. 10-25 in PyeongChang, South Korea.
The United States, which opens play Tuesday at 7 p.m. against Finland, has won the Four Nations Cup six times, including the past two. It finished the runnerup to Canada nine times.
"I think you gain confidence from a tournament like this," USA alternate captain Kacey Bellamy said after Monday’s practice. "You obviously don’t want to look too far ahead to (the Olympic) gold medal and winning it, but you want to take each game in stride, what you can improve on and work on as a team."
Team USA has been practicing in the FHCI’s state-of-the art facility, located just off Interstate-75, since September. Some of the players arrived in August. They will stay at the nearby Saddlebrook Resort and train at FHCI until it is time to leave for South Korea.
It is no stretch to say they are enjoying their time in this part of the hockey world.
"You can tell," Bellamy said. "I have a smile on my face. I love the sun."
This is the first time the event, which rotates between the four countries, has been held in a warm climate. Lake Placid is the usual site when it rotates through the United States.
"People say, ‘Why Florida? I say, ‘Why not?’?" team captain Meghan Duggan said.
Who doesn’t want to wear flip-flops, T-shirts and shorts to work?
"Vitamin D every single day and we are able to play hockey, the sport we love," Bellamy added.
The core of the team remains from the one that finished second to Canada at the 2014 Olympics, losing the gold medal in heartbreaking fashion when Canada rallied for two goals in the final four minutes and won in overtime. The names are familiar to those who follow the women’s team: Megan Bozek, Alex Carpenter, Kendall Coyne, Brianna Decker, Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson, Monique Lamoureux-Morando, Gigi Marvin and Lee Stecklein.
The team has been retooled. There will be a new goalie this time. Duggan also talked about a change in culture.
So far, so good. The United States has won four consecutive world championships, including the last three played since the 2014 Olympics.
It expects to face Canada twice during the Four Nations Cup. The nations will meet at least once in the Olympics, since they are in the same group during pool play.
But, Duggan said, the focus is not on what could be in February, but what must be this week.
"When you think about confidence," Duggan said, "when you think about energy and momentum, it would be a big win for us."
Four Nations Cup
Where: All games except final at Florida Hospital Center Ice, Wesley Chapel; final at Amalie Arena, Tampa
Tickets: $15 at teamusa.usahockey.com for early-round games; Sunday games $25-35
Tuesday: Canada vs. Sweden, 3:30; USA vs. Finland, 7
Wednesday: Finland vs. Sweden, 3:30; Canada vs. USA, 7 (sold out)
Friday: Canada vs. Finland, 3; Sweden vs. USA, 6:30
Sunday: third-place game, noon; final, 3:30