US vs. Canada Women's Hockey: A Rivalry the Olympics Needs to Keep

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US vs. Canada Women's Hockey: A Rivalry the Olympics Needs to Keep
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It's the game we wanted: the big, strong, hard-hitting Canadian women's team against the quicker, faster-skating American women, winner gets the gold medal.

Since women's hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998, Canada has won three gold medals, the U.S. one, and the two nations have played in three gold-medal games.

They will play in their fourth Thursday—and for most of us, that's a good thing.

When men have a dominant athlete or rivalry, we anticipate what will happen. Yankees-Red Sox, bring it on. Dallas Cowboys-New York Giants, let's have it. Will Rafael Nadal win the French Open for a ninth time? We can hardly wait to find out.

Instead, because the U.S. and Canada have so far dominated women's hockey, it's threatened.

You remember when softball was in the Olympics? It was, you know. Four times. The U.S. won the first three gold medals. Japan upset the Americans in London, but it was already too late. Softball had already been kicked to the curb by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Perhaps IOC members need to wear blindfolds Thursday when Canada and the United States play—and have imaginary games going on in their heads that include Sweden or Finland or, most certainly, Russia. 

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The Netherlands wins 21 speedskating medals, and it's hurrays all around. The country's local "house," where friends and family and other invitees can gather, has been filled to the brim with beer-drinking celebrators.

At the women's hockey pregame press conference, a French journalist asked U.S. coach Katey Stone, "Are the two teams doing enough for the rest of the world?" as if it was the job of Canada and the U.S. to develop not only their own teams but those of everyone else.

Sweden's assistant coach Leif Boork had the right idea after the U.S. beat his team 6-1. "Of course it can be a problem for the world's hockey to be so powerful," Boork said. "But on the other hand, it's something to look up to. It's not U.S. and Canada's fault for being good."

If the IOC treated men's sports as it treats women's sports, there would have been no "Miracle on Ice." The Soviet Union had so dominated men's hockey that the men's version of the sport would have been long gone by 1980.

It takes time.

Time is not four years or eight or 12 or even 16. It might be decades.

Cross-country skiing is still part of the Olympics. How many medals has the U.S. won? Or Japan or China or Greece or England? But it's still on the program. 

In our own country, first Tennessee and then Connecticut dominated women's basketball. Now we can add Stanford and Texas A&M and Baylor to the mix. UCLA, for the first time ever, had the top-rated women's recruiting class in the nation. 

See. It takes times. But it happens if we let it.

And in the meantime, the U.S.-Canada rivalry is plenty to keep it entertaining and create interest.

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Just look at the most visible athletes on TV during the Games.

There's American Julie Chu, playing in her fourth Games. You've seen her. She is featured on a television commercial for a paper towel company. 

She is a mentor to the younger generation, simply by playing. Chu deferred admission to Harvard back in 2002 so she could play in Salt Lake City.

Once upon a time, Canada and the U.S. were winning games by scores such as 20-0. We won't mention the losers because members of the IOC might be from some of those countries and think, "Oh, yes, I remember. Be gone, women's hockey."

Chu hasn't won a gold medal yet, by the way. The first one in 1998 went to the U.S. The other three belong to Canada. 

The U.S. beat the Canadians four straight times coming into Sochi—before Canada won 3-2 in preliminary play.

Rather than worrying about whether its sport is on strong footing within the Olympic movement, players and coaches on both teams should be worrying about this game. Canadian coach Kevin Dineen should be game-planning for an angry U.S. team. Stone should be drawing up plans that counter what happened in that loss.

After the U.S. clubbed Sweden, Chu said (via The Washington Post's Mike Wise), "The reality is if women's hockey ever got pulled out of the Olympics, the trickle effect is going to be huge. Not just on the Olympic level, not just on the international level, but we'll feel it at our NCAA (college) level in the States, and we're going to feel it in the growth of our girls."

At the pregame press conference Chu went on to say, "A lot of people tell me, 'Julie, you realize that you're trying to build up other countries so they can beat you?" Chu said she understands that and would rather have women's hockey in the Olympics and also have eight teams in the tournament that could all win.

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It can happen. Sweden beat the U.S. in the Olympics in 2006, becoming the only team other than the U.S. and Canada to advance to the gold-medal game.

The Canadian and U.S. women should just be playing for a medal Thursday. They need to carry hockey sticks and not the future of the sport. They need to worry about shooting the puck into the net and not whether some eight-year-old on a frozen pond in Alberta will get the same chance 12 years from now.

Since the IOC dropped softball (and baseball, as if the two were joined at the hip) from the Olympics, the head of the U.S. softball organization, Don Porter, has inundated e-mail inboxes with every worldwide result he can find. He will speak to gatherings of two if he feels it will help get softball back in the games.

Women were finally allowed to participate in ski jumping this year. First time for that in the Olympics. Nothing untoward happened. Except an American didn't win so there is no outcry to take it away.

Yet.

 

Diane Pucin is the Olympics lead writer for Bleacher Report. She covered eight Games for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @mepucin.

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