In Greatest Olympic Rivalry, U.S. Women's Hockey Aims to End Canada's Dominance

Greg CouchNational ColumnistFebruary 21, 2018

Canada goaltender Genevieve Lacasse (31) makes a save on United States forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando (7) during second period preliminary round women's hockey action at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on Thursday, February 15, 2018. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Nathan Denette/Associated Press

We have just passed the 20-year anniversary of the last time the U.S. women's hockey team won a big game. Well, that might be a little unfair. But the nature of the greatest and most perpetual rivalry in all of sports—USA vs. Canada in women's hockey—isn't about being fair.

No, they will play again for Olympic gold Wednesday night ET in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in a game that defines the entire sport. The Olympics gold-medal game actually is women's hockey, the entirety of it as far as mainstream sports fans are concerned. So a team can win seven of the past eight world championships, as Team USA has, but actually be considered to be on a 20-year losing streak.

"I've been on the team for 10 years, and our careers will be summed up in three games," Monique Lamoureux-Morando told reporters during the U.S. Olympic media summit before the Games. "And we've lost the first two. At the end of the day, that's what you're remembered for, that one game...

"I could win 20 world championships, [and] that will never fulfill not winning a gold medal at the Olympics."

Yes, after the U.S.'s groundbreaking Olympic gold in 1998, Canada has won the past four golds. The U.S. had the gold won four years ago in Sochi but blew a two-goal lead to Canada in the final minutes and then lost in overtime.

The U.S. loss in the Sochi final in 2014 was particularly devastating.
The U.S. loss in the Sochi final in 2014 was particularly devastating.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

And it would be awfully tempting to sit here and say that it's OK, that U.S. women's hockey has already proved itself. It has already changed the world for American girls who want to play the sport. That's all true, but it's also the past. The U.S. team needs this gold medal.

The stage is so much different than it was when this rivalry really got going in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. Karyn Bye Dietz, the leading goal-scorer on that gold-medal winning U.S. team in 1998, remembers the preparation for those Games.

"We played boys' high school teams or [women's] college all-star teams, and they just weren't the level we needed," she told Bleacher Report last week. "We'd find some teams just to play in Lake Placid, maybe find some teams where the coaches knew the other coach.

"[The coaches said,] 'Listen, no checking. Your high school boys play checking; we do not.'"

Contrast that to last March, when the U.S. women's team decided to boycott the world championships in an effort to get "fair wages and equitable support," as a team media release said at the time.

The players wanted more pay, as they had been getting just $6,000 every four years, during Olympics years. The men were actually not paid more than the women, but the men, until this year, had been millionaire NHL players. The women wanted to be able to make a living wage.

The women's team also flew coach while the men flew business class, according to Kjerstin Johnson of The Ringerand the women's food per diem was $15 while the men's was $50. Ahiza Garcia of CNN Money reported that the men's team could bring guests to stay in team hotels while, at times, the women's players had to share rooms.

"A joke was going around when the Team USA women were kind of boycotting and we weren't sure we'd even have a team in worlds," Bye Dietz said. "'Hey, we'll put the skates on again. A bunch of 1998ers and 2002ers will play.'"

Eventually, the women's team won that battle last year. And the truth is, those 1998 players are ever-present in spirit at every women's U.S. hockey game anyway. They are the pioneers.

According to numbers that USA Hockey provided to Bleacher Report, there were 75,832 female hockey players in the U.S. at the end of the 2016-17 season, up 28 percent over 10 years.

But while those are positive numbers, they do not represent a sport that has broken into the mainstream. Bye Dietz said that you can still go to a University of Minnesota women's game, for example, and find 1,500 fans, whereas a men's game will have 15,000.

The big moment in Nagano came during what had been called the Meaningless Game. The U.S. played Canada even though the medal rounds were already set. Canada, the heavy favorites, took a 4-1 lead, and then the U.S. came back with six unanswered goals to win.

"It wasn't a meaningless game," she said. "People said it didn't matter, that we were going to play for the gold anyway, but I strongly believe that game is what gave us so much confidence three days later (when the U.S. beat Canada again to win the gold medal). We went into that game with so much confidence. We knew we could do anything."

Since then, the U.S. and Canada have dominated the sport exclusively. And in some ways, as thrilling as it is to watch them play each other every four years, the sport needs someone else to emerge. It is the only way to grow the game internationally.

In the 18 world championships dating back to 1990, the U.S. has played Canada in the finals every...single...time.

Bye Dietz played in six of those world championship finals, losing all of them: "That's what made winning a '98 gold so much sweeter. First time I was able to beat the Canadians in a gold-medal game."

For now, the sport is all about just two teams and one game every four years. It makes each victory last four long years and each defeat, too.

"Hate?" Bye Dietz said. "I did hate them at the time. But as I've gotten older and more mature, you realize that's a pretty strong word. Let's just change that now to say I strongly dislike them."


Greg Couch covers the Olympics for Bleacher Report.