11/04/2013 05:12 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Canada leaves Wickenheiser, Ouellette off roster for Four Nations Cup

CALGARY - The Canadian women's hockey team will attempt to reclaim the Four Nations Cup without Hayley Wickenheiser.

The five-time Olympian and Canada's captain was among six players head coach Dan Church left off his 21-player roster for the annual international women's tournament starting Tuesday in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"We're going to take an opportunity to give her that little bit of a break," Church said Monday from Lake Placid. "There's no question we know what she can do on the ice and that she can contribute in big games.

"A lot of it has to with making sure she has a good recovery week here and is ready for the final push towards the Olympics."

Wickenheiser, 35, is Canada's all-time leading scorer and has played in 14 Nations Cups during her career. The Four Nations is important preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics for Canada, the U.S., Finland and Sweden.

Assistant captain Caroline Ouellette and forward Marie-Philip Poulin as well as defencemen Meaghan Mikkelson, Lauriane Rougeau and Laura Fortino also remained in Calgary, where the Canadian team is based this winter.

Wickenheiser, Ouellette, a three-time Olympian, Poulin, who is recovering from an ankle injury, and Mikkelson were on the team that won the gold medal in 2010 in Vancouver.

Fortino and Rougeau have been on the national women's team for two years.

"No one is guaranteed a spot in Sochi," Church said. "Some players are obviously a little more secure in their spots, so there were some decisions around that. We also have to look at the overall training plan.

"Some of the veteran players do need a bit of a break and this is really our only opportunity within our schedule to do that."

The performances of the players he did choose for the Four Nations will help Church determine who he wants on the Olympic team that will attempt to defend the gold in Sochi, Russia, in February.

There are 27 women in Calgary trying out for the squad expected to be named in late December. Three forwards and three defencemen will be released.

Poulin scored both goals for Canada in a 2-0 win over the U.S. in the 2010 Olympic final, but hasn't played a game since September because of a high ankle sprain.

"We were hoping she would be available for this tournament, but she just needs about another week," Church said.

Canada opens the Four Nations against Finland on Tuesday before facing the host Americans the following day and Sweden on Friday. The two teams with the best records after the preliminary round meet in Saturday's final.

The U.S. is the both the defending women's world champion and Four Nations champion, having won the latter tournament two years in a row.

The Americans edged Canada 3-2 in Ottawa in April to win their fourth world title in five years.

Canada and the U.S. have already played two of six exhibition games scheduled for this winter with the Canadians winning 3-2 in Burlington, Vt., and 6-3 in Boisbriand, Que., in October.

Goaltenders Shannon Szabados, Charline Labonte and Genevieve Lacasse made the trip to Lake Placid.

Jocelyne Larocque, Brigette Lacquette, Courtney Birchard, Catherine Ward, Tessa Bonhomme, and Tara Watchhorn were the defenceman named to the team Monday.

The forwards will be Gillian Apps, Meghan Agosta-Marciano, Rebecca Johnston, Jennifer Wakefield, Melodie Daoust, Jayna Hefford, Bailey Bram, Jenelle Kohanchuk, Brianne Jenner, Hayley Irwin, Natalie Spooner and Vicki Bendus.

While the point of a spending several months together prior to the Olympic Games is to build a cohesive team, it is never far from the Canadian players' minds that they're competing against each other for spots on the team.

"It's something that's always there all year long, but we're also a team," Apps said. "We fight hard against each other in practice every single day when we come to the rink to make each other better.

"There's six people in this group that won't be on the final roster and that's tough. It is in the back of people's minds and that's just kind of the nature of the situation."

A CBC online story in October questioned whether Wickenheiser would be Canada's captain at the 2014 Winter Games. She's worn the 'C' for Canada at every major tournament since 2007.

"I don't know who will be the captain in Sochi," Church answered. "Hayley is definitely one of the ones we're considering. She's part of our leadership group that we've established.

"It could be reading too much into it in terms if it's jeopardy. We want a team with a lot of good quality leaders in it and whether people wear 'C's or 'A's they're going to do a good job."

Wickenheiser told The Canadian Press on Monday she was not available for an interview.

Church has rotated his letters between different players this winter.

"If you think you have leadership completely where it should be and you don't pay any attention to it, that's when things go wrong," Church said. "You always have to work on that aspect of your team.

"Especially coming out of Ottawa and the results we had there and what we want to do, we want to build a team that has a lot of leaders in it that can step up at different times."

Hefford will be Canada's captain in Lake Placid with Ward and Irwin her assistants, said Church.

The absence of Wickenheiser, Ouellette, Mikkelson and Poulin at the Four Nations will force inexperienced players to shoulder more responsibility, he added.

"There's a huge opportunity for the players that are here this week to rise to the occasion," Church said. "There are big expectations on them to carry the load here without having that safety net. That's a good thing for our younger players to experience."

The Four Nations will also be Canada's first look at Finland and Sweden since the world championship.

The Finns were the Olympic bronze medallists in 2010, but were beaten by the Russians for bronze in Ottawa. The Swedes, the surprise Olympic silver medallists in 2006, dropped to seventh at the world championship.

The four remaining exhibition games against the U.S. women are scheduled for Dec. 12 in Calgary, Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., Dec. 28 in St. Paul, Minn., and Dec. 30 in Toronto.