‘The greatest rivalry in sports’: Canada, U.S. on another collision course for women’s hockey gold

Barring an almost unthinkable upset, Canada and the United States will battle for the gold medal in women’s hockey at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang for the fifth time in the past six Games.

They are the two super powers in women’s hockey. Always have been, probably always will be.

The Canadian and USA women’s hockey teams will continue the narrative of their long-standing rivalry this February at PyeongChang 2018. Will the Americans finally be able to stop Canada’s Olympic run? 1:15

If we’re placing all the cards on the table, the United States is the world’s most dominant country when it comes to high-level women’s hockey, with Canada a close No. 2. The United States has been victorious at the past four IIHF Women’s World Championship tournaments (and seven of the last eight) and has won the Four Nations Cup three straight times. Each time the U.S. won, Canada finished second.

And yet, when it comes to the most prestigious women’s hockey tournament — the Winter Olympic Games — Canada has dominated. The United States won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in 1998 in Nagano, Japan, but Canada has captured the last four Olympic golds. The only final that didn’t feature the two countries was in Turin in 2006 when Canada beat Sweden, which had defeated the U.S. in the semifinals.

This sign held up by a fan of Natalie Spooner’s during a Canada-U.S. exhibition game in Edmonton in December is mostly correct — but only if you’re talking about the Olympics. (Kevin Light Photography/CBC)

‘A feeling that never goes away’

Nobody can quite put their finger on why the United States dominates the world championship and the Four Nations while Canada owns the Olympics, though Canadian defenders Meaghan Mikkelson and Rebecca Johnston share a theory.

“In Olympic years we spend a lot of time together,” Mikkelson says. “The adversity we go through as a group, all the games we play and the time we have to perfect our systems, all seem to benefit us. We cover everything and are 100 per cent prepared for the Olympic Games.”

“You have more time to build team chemistry,” Johnston adds. “I think in the United States a lot of their players play together in non-Olympic years, whereas we’re split up on four or five teams. It’s challenging to go to the world championship and only have a week to prepare.”

During Olympic seasons, the Canadian players are centralized for seven months in Calgary, where they compete in a boys’ Midget Triple-A league against players age 15 to 17.

The crazy thing about the rivalry between Canada and the United States is how close, for the most part, the games are. Canada has lost the last two world championship gold-medal games in overtime. The Americans lost the last Olympic gold-medal game in OT. Obviously, the games could have gone either way.

At the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, the Americans seemed to have a lock on the gold, carrying a 2-0 lead into the final four minutes of the third period. However, Brianne Jenner scored at 16:34 to pull Canada to within a goal and captain Marie-Philip Poulin forced overtime with a goal at 19:05.

Poulin, who had both goals in Canada’s 2-0 victory in the gold-medal game at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, worked her magic once again, netting the game-winner at 8:10 of the extra period.

“It’s no secret we came up short of our goal in the last Olympics, but having won the last three world championships is pretty important to our confidence,” says Team USA captain Meghan Duggan.

Added American teammate Monique Lamoureaux: “The Olympics are every four years, so we’ve had a lot of time to sit and think about that loss. Most people don’t understand that’s a feeling that never goes away; it does not dull.”

Captain Meghan Duggan, centre, and her American teammates have kept a tight grip on the world championship trophy. In 2017, they won it for the fourth straight time. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Bad taste

Every win for the United States over Canada is significant. But although Team USA coach Robb Staubber acknowledges the rivalry, he doesn’t let it consume him.

“It’s a great rivalry, but from our perspective, we don’t necessarily want to get caught up in it,” Staubber said after guiding his team to a 5-1 victory over Canada in the gold-medal game of the Four Nations Cup in Tampa Bay in November. “We know what to expect and we know it’s going to be a hard-fought game, but at the end of the day it’s way more interesting to us to focus on what we do best.

“Canada is good — really good. And they’re going to be good every time we play them, so we just stay focused on who we are and how we want to play in a way that gives us a good chance to get the outcome we want.”

Team Canada forward Meghan Agosta says losing to the Americans in the past seven tournament finals has left a bad taste in the mouths of her and her teammates.

“Losing hurts and we will never forget how that feels,” Agosta said. “As an athlete you hate to lose and you want to remember how it feels. At the same time, the past is the past and we can’t go into the Olympics overconfident just because we won the last four Olympic gold medals.”

Regardless of how things unfold in South Korea, Duggan says the U.S-Canada rivalry in women’s hockey is one for the ages.

“I’m biased, but I think it’s the greatest rivalry in sports when you look at the history of how many gold-medal games the two teams have played in.

“It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

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