Head coach Laura Schuler is putting her stamp on Canadian women's hockey team

Former national player carries success, leadership over to clipboard

Head coach Laura Schuler is putting her stamp on Canadian women's hockey team
Laura Schuler made some key tactical decisions in guiding Canada to a 2-1 victory over the United States in their final preliminary-round game. © Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

By Mike Brophy, CBC Sports

Much of the credit — deservedly so — goes to goaltender Genevieve Lacasse for Canada's hard-fought 2-1 win against the United States in the team's final preliminary-round game of these Winter Games.

Making the first start of her Olympic career, Lacasse stopped 44 of 45 shots and slammed the door shut on the Americans, particularly during their late-game surge.

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No question about it, Lacasse was the best player on the ice.

But someone else also had a huge impact on the outcome of contest: Team Canada coach Laura Schuler.

In the first period — with the Americans all over the sluggish Canadians — Schuler took three opportunities to call her players over to the bench and, basically, read them the riot act. Schuler is about as player-friendly a coach as you'll find, but it was clear she was not impressed with her team's effort and expected a quick about-face.

With her team struggling in its own zone, Schuler made a risky move by putting veteran utility forward Haley Irwin on defence for a few shifts. Irwin's calm play seemed to settle the other defenders down. It was a solid coaching move by someone who knew exactly what her team needed at that moment.

The Canadian players responded by playing better in the late stages of the first period, and then scoring two goals in the second. While the Americans were full marks for their persistence and effort, the Canadians bent, but did not break.

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"I am definitely really happy with this afternoon's win," Schuler said after the game. "There are still parts of our game that we can continue to improve and we'll spend the next couple of days looking at the video and seeing where those areas are."

Schuler expected to win

Canada concluded the preliminary round undefeated at 3-0, getting a direct berth in Monday's semifinal, and will play the winner of the Olympic Athletes of Russia-Switzerland quarter-final.

Make no mistake about it, Schuler is under pressure to win. She is the first former player to coach the Olympic team and everybody knows finishing second is no option in Canada.

Schuler played on three Canadian world championship gold medal-winning teams and was a member of the 1998 Olympic team that lost to the United States in the Olympic final. The 47-year-old Toronto native has an extensive NCAA coaching background and was named head coach of Canada's national women's team in 2015.

It is a cool story to have a former player come back to coach the team — if the team wins. Not so cool if it doesn't.

Thus far, Canada has not been able to beat the world No. 1-ranked Americans at any tournament with Schuler behind the bench. The Americans have won four consecutive world championships and 4 Nations Cup titles.

This is Schuler's team

A few weeks before the Games began, Team Canada announced longtime NHL assistant coach Perry Pearn was joining the coaching staff as an adviser. If anybody took that as a sign that Schuler was losing her grip on the team, they were wrong.

This is Schuler's hockey team and that was evident in Wednesday's win over the U.S.

This Olympic Games tournament is a huge challenge for Schuler and the Canadians who are trying to win their fifth straight Olympic gold.

"I think there is another level of respect when it is a player that has gone through the program and knows what it's like," said Team Canada forward Brianne Jenner.

With that in mind, Schuler initiated a movement whereby former players would visit the current crop of Team Canada players to share their experiences on the international stage.

"You know the pressure of winning gold and what it was like," Schuler said. "I think for myself, being a player, I am in a unique situation where I can relate to my players and I understand the pressures that they are going through; the distractions and all the excitement. I think that enables us to be able to put a good plan in place so that our kids feel prepared."

Her players are appreciative of the fact Schuler has their backs.

"I love coach Schu's style," said veteran Meghan Mikkelson. "She brings motivation to the group; she brings energy and she's very passionate. You can tell just how much she cares."

"She has a lot of energy and she has been there, so obviously it is a great plus for us," added Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin.

Both teams satisfied

The United States completed the preliminary round at 2-1 and will play the winner of the Finland-Sweden game in the semifinal.

Despite the loss to Canada, Team USA was satisfied with its effort and still believes they are the team to beat.

"I think if you look at the puck possession, time and zone, that is the positive we'll take away from [this game]," said Kendell Coyne. "I think they know that and we know that and it's going to be all about the next game here for us. It's just finding a way. We've just got to find a way."

Canada also feels good about its position.

"I think we are in a good spot as far as confidence goes," Schuler said.

That said, the expectation to win is always present.

"The pressure is always there," Schuler said, "and that is what it means to be Canadian. If we get too focused on the outcome, we're going to forget about the details that allowed us to be successful in the end. To me, pressure is about action and process, so it's a good thing because it gets you off your seat and moving."