SOCHI -- Forget the U.S. vs. Russia, Davis and White vs. Virtue and Moir, Shaun White against the world. The best rivalry in Sochi -- and the one you probably know the least about -- will be on display on Thursday night at Bolshoy Arena, when the U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams face off for the gold medal.
That’s right -- the best rivalry here.
“It’s the Yankees versus Red Sox,” former U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero said, “without the trades.”
It has history: The U.S. and Canada have been the top two women's ice hockey teams in the world since the dawn of the sport. The two teams have met in the last three world championship finals and all were one-goal games; two went to overtime. Two of the teams’ pre-Sochi games featured post-whistle brawls. And there's even drama off the ice: Team Canada’s original coach for these Olympics, Dan Church, abruptly and mysteriously resigned just two months ago. Most importantly, every time the U.S. and Canada meet, fans are guaranteed to see the finest of what the women’s game has to offer.
“The best 42 players in the world, with maybe the exception of a handful, play for the U.S. or Canada,” said Caitlin Cahow, a U.S. Olympic team member in 2006 and ’10. “I don’t think there’s any other event where [the talent] is that isolated between two teams.”
So as the world readies for what could be the most competitive Olympic gold medal match yet, this is the story of a rivalry that’s grown, evolved and become second to none.
Maybe it wasn’t personal, but it sure felt personal. In the early days of the rivalry, there was no other way to take it. The players from the U.S. and Canada never communicated off the ice; on it, the words weren’t kind. Each team believed the other was ordered not to communicate with them. It was imperative to see and treat each other as sworn enemies.
“I remember one of their girls talked to me once, said, ‘Hi,’” U.S. women’s hockey legend Cammi Granato said. “And then one of [her teammates] got so mad at her. It wasn’t even at a tournament. Just out somewhere.”
It was awkward and even uncomfortable to share the same space, she said. Once, before an exhibition match in the late 1990s, Granato remembers waiting for the elevator in some small hotel in some small Canadian town, where both teams were staying. When the elevator door opened, it revealed a car full of Canadian players, on their way down. She looked at them. They looked at her. Neither party moved, neither said a word, and the doors just closed between them.
“It’s so bitter,” Granato said. “Nobody says hi to each other. Nobody likes each other. Everybody’s got their game faces on.”
At the first women’s world championship in 1990, though, there was no rivalry as far as the players were concerned. Players on both sides were just amazed there were fans there at all. But in 1992, when the IOC voted to add women’s hockey to the Olympic program, the expectation on both sides was the gold medal.
The wins against Canada were few and far between in those days, as the U.S. lost each of the four world championship finals before 1998. And in those so-called “friendlies” in the lead-up to Nagano, Team Canada, strong and physical, often had its way with the Americans. Granato recalls the time Hayley Wickenheiser, then a teenage phenom for Canada, wrestled her down to the ice, splitting open her lip even though she was wearing a full cage.
“It was ridiculous, looking back at that now,” Granato said. “The refs weren’t really sure how to handle no checking. Stuff wasn’t called very well, and games would get out of hand.”
Left unchecked, the games grew bitter, but it wasn’t until Nagano that a full-fledged rivalry was born.
“We were down 4-1 in the semifinal [of the 1998 Olympics], and came back to beat them 7-4 for [what seemed like] the first time ever,” Ruggiero said. “We had never even scored that many goals on them before, and that sent such a strong message to them -- and to us.”
Two days later, the U.S. beat Canada again 3-1 to win gold.
Half a world away, in Sudbury, Ont., 12-year-old Tessa Bonhomme woke up at 5:00 a.m. to watch that game in Japan. Even now, at 28, she can remember watching with her father, watching the U.S. score two goals and hold off the Canadians.
“I remember being so mad, and I didn’t understand why,” she said. “The girls still won silver, and that was an amazing thing obviously, but that was not what I wanted. I think I might’ve even cried a little bit.”
She, like many other young girls who were watching, got emotionally hooked. “When the captain would hoist the plate at a world championship, I kind of felt like it was my win, too,” she said. When she suited up for her first series against the U.S., as a 19-year-old defenseman for the Canadian U-22 team in 2004, she said, “I had never been so excited for any game in my life.”
In 2002, at the Salt Lake City Games, the tables turned. The U.S. came into the tournament as heavy favorites, but Canada surprised even themselves to take the gold, spurred by a shocking tale. Team Canada went into the final under the impression that the U.S. players had defaced a Canadian flag before the game. Wickenheiser announced after the win: “The Americans had our flag on their floor in the dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it.”
If it was already a fire, the rivalry was now an inferno.
To this day, the U.S. players insist that there was no flag stomping before the 2002 final. There wasn’t even a flag in their dressing room, they say, and most of the Canadian players have come to believe them. “I asked one of my friends on the U.S. teams, someone I really trust, and so no, I don’t think that happened,” former Canada forward Jennifer Botterill said.
A friend? On Team USA? That she trusts?
Indeed, Botterill was one of the first Canadian women to cross border lines. Six months after her first Olympics in ’98, she showed up on the campus of Harvard University, where she would be teammates with Ruggiero. This was how the rivalry grew.
As NCAA women’s hockey programs began recruiting north of the border, the allegiance to flag took a back seat to school pride on most days. Bonhomme, despite her initial misgivings (“I remember thinking, No way. No way am I going to play hockey down there,” she said), went to Ohio State and played with former U.S. defensemen Lisa Chesson. Canada defenseman Meaghan Mikkelson shared a locker room with U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter at Wisconsin.
Over time, the women began seeing each other as people -- not simply as foes. “I think it’s evolved into more of a positive rivalry,” Botterill said. “There’s a little more humanity to it than when I was a rookie.”
In the grander scheme, players realized that both sides were fighting for the same cause, to see their sport grow. Their rivalry pushed the women’s game forward. But still, nowadays, even though Canadian women have infiltrated the NCAA -- 16 players on Team Canada played college hockey in the U.S. -- the two nations still seem to keep to their sides.
A look at the Olympic rosters in Sochi reveals that the border between the U.S. and Canada extends all the way to Boston. It cuts across the T’s Green Line, where on one end sits Boston College, alma mater or current school of three U.S. players. On the other side is Boston University, which lays claim to three members of Team Canada.
There’s a second border in Minnesota, too. While the Golden Gophers have five players or alums on Team USA, it has none on Team Canada. The University of Minnesota-Duluth, however, is home to three Canadian Olympians and no Americans. The border even extends into the Ivy League, where it splits Harvard, with four Americans, including coach Katey Stone, and Cornell, which has four Canadians.
The NCAA has helped women’s hockey, but cross-pollination has shown its limits. Leading up to an Olympics, there is generally less occasion and time for players to interact anyway. Perhaps that is why the rivalry, in recent months, has grown from smoldering to an inferno. A pair of on-ice brawls -- all-out glove-dropping fights -- in the months before the Games, got the women's game on SportsCenter and set the stage for Sochi.
“[Watching that,] I’m thinking, it’s back, in full swing,” Granato said. “It never really left, I guess … I was actually kind of shocked, but I guess it’s just a sign of where the rivalry is.”
Those fights were all about message-sending. The U.S. players were standing up for themselves, out to show that they would not be pushed around or bullied by a bigger and more physical Canadian team. “Both teams now know there’s a firm line you don’t cross between one another,” Ruggiero said. “Whereas before, I don’t know if that line was as firm in the ground.”
Every player has her favorite story about the rivalry. Bonhomme recalls hers from the 2010 Vancouver Games. Before the gold medal final, Team Canada came out of its dressing room greeted by surprising faces. Lining the rubber to the tunnel were the U.S. men’s team.
“They were chirping us the whole walk out there,” Bonhomme said, “asking us if we were excited to get our silver medal, [saying] that we were brutal and their girls were going to win. I was the last one out, thinking, ‘Man, where are our guys?’ Sure enough, when we got to the tunnel, they were all there giving us high fives. That just lit a fire under our butts. I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t wait for these 60 minutes to be over … I hope [they’re] still there when I have my gold medal so I can whack [them] with it on my way back.’”
The rivalry transcends women’s hockey. People clamor about the lack of parity outside of North America, but there are never any complaints when the U.S. and the Canadian women meet. Every time they do, it feels different. When there is a medal on the line, it feels like those 60 minutes just might mean the world to the 42 women on the ice.
“You didn’t get that [feeling] against Finland,” Ruggiero said. “You didn’t do that against Sweden. You did it against Canada ... Your entire purpose behind training is to beat Canada. You don’t want to admit it, but [it’s] your purpose as an athlete and where you draw your motivation. And that’s pretty cool to have a team that makes you better and you make them better … I loved playing them. That’s why I say I don’t hate them, because I loved playing them. It was my favorite day of the year.”
Former U.S defenseman Caitlin Cahow has a story that sums up the rivalry for her. It’s not her favorite story -- in it, she plays the unlucky goat -- but during that 2010 final, which Canada won 2-0, she remembers getting caught in a 2-on-1 situation midway through the first period. Botterill and Team Canada forward Marie-Philip Poulin were bearing down on her, and Cahow, another Harvard graduate, who played with Botterill in college and against her many, many times thereafter, thought she was prepared.
“I know [Botterill] so well,” Cahow said. “I know Bots is going to pass. She’s a playmaker. So I’m shading to Poulin, shading to Poulin, giving Bots some space. I’m watching both, but I’m mostly watching Poulin, and then all of a sudden, Bots kick it into another gear I’ve never seen before. I’m like, What? So I scramble and cross my feet over behind me, a huge no-no, and try to step toward Bots so she doesn’t have a good angle to cut to the net. And as soon as I shifted my feet, wouldn’t you know it, she dishes the puck over and they score.
“That, I even think about it now,” she said, “that was a personal freaking moment. For us, it was so personal, but it was great.”