In describing the hot-blooded USA-Canada women’s hockey rivalry—now at full boil thanks to two glove-dropping brawls—some reach for well-known comparisons: Yankees-Red Sox, Duke-Carolina, Maple Leafs-Canadiens, Michigan-Ohio State.
But those matchups have long histories and are played out once a year or more. USA-Canada is different. For the casual fan who only tunes in during the four-year Olympic bubble, it might be the best team rivalry people know the least about.
Did you know:
- Of the 19 world championships and Olympics played since 1990, the U.S. and Canada have met in the gold-medal finals 18 times. The only time the teams did not play the final was in the 2006 Olympics, where Sweden beat the U.S. in the semifinals, and Canada went on to win the title.
- As an Olympic rivalry, it isn’t much of one on paper. The U.S. hasn’t won Olympic gold since the inaugural 1998 tournament, losing to Canada in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
- Canada leads in world championships, 10 to five, but the U.S. has won four of the past five.
- Because women’s hockey is such a small world, players spend more time as teammates than as rivals, often playing on university teams in the U.S.
The U.S. and Canada stand apart from the rest of the world’s programs, and that’s a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because you get to watch two teams at the top of their games, pushing each other to constantly improve. A curse, because their separation could lead to the sport's extinction on the Olympic program.
During the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, as each team laid waste to its opposition in a predictable march to the final, International Olympic Committee chief Jacques Rogge voiced a warning:
“We cannot continue without improvement,” he said.
That’s part of the reasoning behind this year’s new format in Sochi, where the world’s top four-ranked teams (Canada, U.S., Switzerland, Finland) are in one group and four others (Sweden, Japan, Russia, Germany) in the second. Teams in the first group advance to the medal round, using group play only for seeding purposes.
The idea that sublime play by the U.S. and Canada is actually bad for its Olympics longevity has resulted in another oddity for the fierce rivals: it means they have to team up to help other nations, with the goal to beat them someday.
Hockey’s international federation responded to Rogge’s dire words by launching a $2.1 million campaign for U.S. and Canadian federations to mentor and coach other nations.
When Finland, behind stellar play by goalie Noory Raty, pulled off a rare upset of the U.S. in the final of the Four Nations Cup last year, four-time Olympic veteran Julie Chu noted the oddity.
“It was a little weird," she said to ESPN W. "We didn't like losing, but we did like that the gap was closing."
So far at Sochi, it hasn’t closed much. The U.S. dealt some payback for the Four Nations Cup loss, beating Finland and Raty, 3-1, in a game that wasn’t as close as the score. It pounded Switzerland, 9-0, on Monday, scoring five times in a span of 6:22 in the first period.
Canada won both its games so far, beating Finland on Monday, 3-0, after an early struggle to find the net, and Switzerland, 5-0.
The two face off in preliminary play on Wednesday, the first of what’s expected to be two games, with the gold-medal match Feb. 20.
The U.S. won the last four of seven pre-Olympic tuneups. Canada had the rockier run-up to the Olympics when coach Dan Church abruptly quit in December, saying others lacked confidence in his ability to lead Canada to a fourth-straight gold. He was replaced by Kevin Dineen, former coach of the NHL's Florida Panthers.
U.S.-Canada women’s hockey is the Olympics’ most intense team rivalry, partly because it’s the pinnacle of the sport for women. Women hockey players have no Stanley Cup to hoist and little in the way of professional leagues. The Olympics is their everything.
The women’s game has differed from the men’s in two significant ways: Rules call for no checking, and fights have been rare. Until now.
Referees issued 10 fighting major penalties following a brawl triggered when Jocelyne Lamoureux hit Brianne Jenner with an illegal bodycheck after Jenner knocked down U.S. teammate Josephine Pucci. Four other U.S. players joined the fray, including Jocelyne’s twin sister, Monique, with nine seconds left in a 4-1 U.S. win in December. That came after a 10-player fight in October, prompted by Monique Lamoureux.
"In the NHL they hire fighters, but it's not a part of our game," former U.S. forward Erica Lawler, a member of the 2010 Olympic team and 2012 world championship team, told Sports Illustrated. “However, what I liked about that fight in Burlington was that you saw people playing out of passion... When push comes to shove, you've got to have your teammates' back no matter what."
Meri-Jo Borzilleri covered four Olympic Games for the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Seattle Times.