Canada, US primed to meet for women’s olympic hockey gold

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — This border rivalry has raged for two decades now, since even before women’s hockey was an Olympic sport.

Canada and the U.S. team have won every gold medal, every world championship, every big international prize their sport offers. Most of the time, they’ve faced no real competition except each other.

Heck, only Sweden has broken through to the big finale – four years ago in Turin, where the Americans made an Olympic mistake they hope to remedy Thursday. In front of a raucous crowd cheering for the home team, the Americans will meet Canada again in the long-anticipated gold-medal match of the Vancouver Games.

“This is our Stanley Cup final, our Super Bowl, our Final Four all rolled into 60 minutes on the ice,” said U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian. “This is what we prepare for, what gets us through all those practices and all those months away from our families and friends and careers. It’s probably the best rivalry in women’s sports for the people who know about it.”

With ample funding, innovative training and a deep talent pool that expands each year, North America has dominated women’s hockey to the point its viability as an Olympic sport has been questioned. Anybody who watches their passing, speed and shooting can see the Canadians and Americans are simply playing a different game than the rest of the world – yet they’re playing it in tandem, constantly pushing each other to improve, to get deeper, to work harder.

Although this familiarity breeds more respect than contempt, it also doesn’t spark many friendships, as evidenced by the scrums and scraps in their most recent meetings leading up to Vancouver. A few players have crossed paths at American colleges or on Canadian pro teams, but most have strictly a working relationship.

“I don’t know if I can be friends with them,” whispered Jenny Potter, another four-time U.S. Olympian. “I mean, they’re Canadian.”

They’re meeting in the final after two of the most dominant runs in Olympic history, made even more impressive by the rest of the world’s strides. Sweden, Finland and the also-rans are getting better, but North America is pulling away even faster.

Starting with an 18-0 thrashing of Slovakia, Canada outscored its four opponents in Vancouver 46-2, while the Americans ran up a 40-2 advantage. Neither team won a game by fewer than five goals, and no opponent scored more than one.

And here’s perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this rivalry: Neither team has really pushed past the other. After 20 years, they’re still neck-and-neck, still fighting for every loose puck and each victory.

“We live to push those guys, and I’m sure they feel the same way,” Canadian forward Jayna Hefford said. “You always want to test yourself against the best, and we’re both at the top of this game.”

Although Canada won the first eight world championships starting in 1990, the Americans won plenty of other matches and usually kept the finals close. When women’s hockey finally made it to the Olympics in 1998, the Americans upset the Canadians for the sport’s first gold medals. The disappointment that still fuels Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, the world’s most visible player and the captain in her fourth Olympics.

Canada nudged ahead again in 2006 when the Americans blew a semifinal game to Sweden, forcing them to settle for bronze medals while Canada won its second straight Olympic golds. Yet the U.S. team rallied to win back-to-back world championships over the past two years, following them up with a Canada Cup victory in Vancouver last September.

The Canadians have won six straight games over the U.S. team since the Canada Cup – albeit mostly by one goal, as in two entertaining meetings around New Year’s Day. Neither team thinks much of those recent results, however: A winner-take-all final is too unpredictable, too dependent on a hot goalie or a cold shooter.

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“Anybody could have anything up their sleeve, but I’m pretty sure we know and they know everything about each other,” Canada coach Melody Davidson said. “There’s respect, but also a tremendous rivalry and pride. I think it’s one of the best rivalries in sports, male or female.”

Perhaps Thursday’s only surprises will be in the coaches’ goalie choices. Neither will say who’s playing. Although Jessie Vetter is a near lock to be in the Americans’ net, Davidson must choose between Shannon Szabados and Kim St. Pierre, who both excelled in recent weeks.

Although surprisingly few players will acknowledge having friends in the other jersey, their careers all have crisscrossed. Some were college teammates, such as Harvard grads Ruggiero and Jennifer Botterill, while others already have faced each other in pivotal moments in other jerseys, such as Vetter’s 5-0 victory with Wisconsin over Canada forward Meghan Agosta’s Mercyhurst squad in last year’s Frozen Four.

“I think all that just makes the rivalry more intense,” said Botterill, another four-time Olympian. “When we get on the ice with a big crowd, all we’re thinking about is the game.”

And it’s winner-take-all, just one contest to decide the sport’s best. To the North American mind, a three- or five-game playoff series seems more appropriate to really determine that superiority, but U.S. coach Mark Johnson will have none of it.

The Miracle on Ice hero prefers the Olympic experience, risking everything on one game.

“I hope they’re confident, because I’m confident in them,” Johnson said. “When you work hard and get prepared to get where you want to go, you’ve already succeeded. To get to this position is a success. Let’s go out and have fun for 60 minutes.”