SOCHI -- For once, this won’t be for all the marbles. This won’t be a game that divides ultimate victory from inconsolable defeat. It won’t end with gloves flung high in the air, a joyful national anthem, flag-waving or champagne celebrations. Instead, for the first time ever, the U.S. and the Canadian women’s hockey teams will meet in the Olympics without a gold medal on the line on Wednesday afternoon at Shayba Arena.
Thanks to a format tweak, which puts the top two teams in the same group, fans will be treated to a preview of the presumptive gold medal final on February 20. The change was borne from the concern that the heavily lopsided contests between North American teams and the rest of the world are stunting the sport. When the U.S. and Canada outscored their opponents 86-4 in Vancouver -- in group play, Canada crushed Slovakia 18-0, while the U.S. beat Russia 13-0 -- it sparked debate over women’s hockey’s place in the Games.
But instead of eradicating the sport, the IIHF proposed an alternative that wisely paid attention to competitive parity. And the change just may be the best thing to happen to the Olympic women’s tournament since it debuted in 1998. Most importantly, it limits the number of blowouts, bringing more competitive hockey to the stage all around. Yes, there is still much more work to be done to close the talent gap. The U.S.’s dominating 9-0 victory over Switzerland on Monday is evidence of that, but those kinds of games have been less frequent in Sochi than they were in Vancouver or in Turin.
The changes seem to have increased the quality of other games. The Finns held Canada scoreless for nearly 50 minutes on Monday in a 3-0 loss on , prompting some hockey reporters covering the Canadian men at the neighboring Bolshoy Ice Dome to think about running over to catch the end. In the game between Russia and Germany on Sunday, the Russians trailed 1-0 after two periods, but clawed back with three goals in the third to win their opener in front of their home fans. U.S. head coach Katey Stone peeked into that game and called it one of the best experiences she's ever had watching hockey. “I had somewhere I had to go, but I didn’t want to leave the building,” she said.
Perhaps more enticingly, the change also promises a marquee matchup between the world’s very best – which is what we’ll see when the U.S. and Canada meet on Wednesday. With the exception of Finnish goalie Noora Raty, the 42 best players in the world are on the American and Canadian rosters. The games between the two teams have been historically quick and skilled, always competitive and sometimes even nasty. And having these teams meet early in the tournament sets up even more anticipation for a potential final.
Of course, both sides will try not to hype the meeting. “It’s another opponent at the Olympic Games that you’re trying to beat,” Stone said. “It’s as meaningful as the Finland and Swiss games were for us.”
Nobody’s buying that. But they should buy into this revised format, and the games it will bring -- none more exciting than the match between the U.S. and Canada. It may not be the tournament's defining game, but it will be great for both teams (as an early chance to see each other’s cards), and even greater for the game.