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Sport: Olympics-Ice hockey rivals take different approaches to same COVID opponent

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By Steve Keating

Canada and U.S. women’s hockey national teams play an international hockey exhibition game in Maryland Heights, Missouri © Reuters/JONATHAN ERNST Canada and U.S. women’s hockey national teams play an international hockey exhibition game in Maryland Heights, Missouri

(Reuters) - Women's ice hockey superpowers Canada and the United States have had similar preparations for the Beijing Olympics but when it comes to COVID-19, they are taking very different approaches.

While Canadian players are cloistered in a bubble in Calgary, their American counterparts are going about their daily lives in a business-as-usual manner with no added precautions beyond the normal social-distancing, mask wearing and assessing individual threat levels.

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Canada and U.S. women’s hockey national teams play an international hockey exhibition game in Maryland Heights, Missouri © Reuters/JONATHAN ERNST Canada and U.S. women’s hockey national teams play an international hockey exhibition game in Maryland Heights, Missouri

"We're not in a bubble," veteran U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who will be playing in her fourth Olympics, told Reuters.

"We do the best we can to kind of simulate a hybrid bubble but by no means are we in a sort of sealed environment that would totally mitigate bringing the possibility of COVID to our environment.

"It is a challenging time right now."

In contrast, Canadian players moved into a bubble in mid-January and will remain in one until leaving for Beijing on Jan. 26.

Gina Kingsbury, director of women’s national teams with Hockey Canada, said team movements would be restricted to the hotel and practice rink and remain secluded from the public until their departure.

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"From now until then, we're basically in a bubble," Kingsbury said following the announcement of the rosters on Jan. 11. "We're going to take every precaution that we possibly can as a group to remain safe.

"Even within our group, we'll be very careful and diligent to make sure that we're again in a safe environment."

The Canadians are aware of the risks coronavirus poses as the final two games of their Rivalry Series with the U.S. on Jan. 3 in Edmonton and Jan. 6 in Red Deer had to be cancelled after several Canadian players and staff were placed in COVID-19 protocol.

Knight said U.S. players are also keenly aware of the threat COVID-19 poses to their gold medal defence but saw little sense in going into a lockdown as the team would be mingling with the general public while travelling to Beijing.

The situation has added a level of stress Knight and her team mates have never experienced, taking them well out of their comfort zones.

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"It is incredibly stressful, we are in uncertain times in so many ways," said Knight, a member of the Red Bull stable of athletes that will be competing in Beijing.

"As an athlete we like our routines and habits, and we find comfort in that.

"For us, being in an environment with people who aren't taking the same safety precautions, we have to go above and beyond."

The stakes are incredibly high for both Canada and the U.S., who between them have won every gold medal since women's ice hockey became part of the Olympic program at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

The U.S. halted Canada's run of four consecutive golds with 3-2 shootout victory at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and the North American rivals are expected to battle again for top step on the podium in Beijing.

Despite all their on ice preparations, it could be COVID-19 that determines who plays for gold but for Knight that is just another obstacle the team will have to overcome.

"We might not be able to train the way we want but we are going to find a way, the best we can, to put ourselves in a position to win," said Knight. "We are all working towards that goal and problem solving on the fly."

Canada's first game will be against Switzerland on Feb. 3, a day before the opening ceremony in Beijing, while the U.S. take on Finland.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Pritha Sarkar)

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