VANCOUVER – The gold medal game in the women’s Olympic hockey tournament will have the familiar Canada-USA matchup, but it could also mark the last Olympic contests for two of the greatest players in women’s hockey history.
The future beyond Thursday night’s game for defenseman Angela Ruggiero of the United States and winger Jayna Hefford of Canada is far from certain. After USA’s 9-1 win over Sweden in the semifinal, the 30-year-old Ruggerio talked openly about the fact this might be her last game with the national team. Hefford, Canada’s oldest player at 32, would like to continue playing for the Canadian team, but realizes that competing through the 2014 Olympics in Sochi could be a stretch.
Regardless of whether or not Thursday night’s game is the last in the Olympics for Ruggiero and Hefford, one thing is certain: Both will one day be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame now that it has allowed for women to be inducted.
“I don’t want to think about it,” said Ruggiero, who has played more international games for USA than any man or woman in the country’s history. “I’ve loved hockey since I was seven and I’m still loving it. I don’t really want to think about what I’m going to do afterwards because I think it would be too much at this point dealing with the emotions that go into dedicating your life to something.”
Hefford, who ranks third all-time in the Canadian women’s program in games, goals and points, wants to continue playing at least next season, but will be 37 by the time the Sochi Games are played.
“I haven’t really thought about it, but I will say that I haven’t had more fun than I’ve had this season,” Hefford said after Canada’s 5-0 win over Finland in the other semifinal. “I don’t know what will happen, but I guess I’ll have to get a real job someday.”
As far as the games are concerned, the distinctions between the two teams is pretty much the same as it is for the respective country’s men’s teams. The Americans are smaller, faster and younger and the Canadians are more physical, more experienced and boast more offensive talent.
Going into the Olympics, the two teams have played 10 times with Canada winning seven of the games, including a 5-1 victory in the Four Nations Cup. But when the two teams faced off in Salt Lake City in 2002, the Americans had won all eight pre-tournament games, but Canada won the gold medal game. And the Americans go into this gold medal game with the confidence of knowing they’ve bettered Canada in each of the past two gold medal games in the World Women’s Championship.
“One thing we’ve talked about is that your character is revealed in adversity,” Ruggiero said. “And we’ve certainly had some adversity this year. We didn’t have a very good Four Nations tournament and we’ve lost quite a few games to Canada and we had our own press turning on us and we’ve come together through all that.”
And the most important thing, at least according to USA coach Mark Johnson, is that his team is getting better and aiming to peak at the right time.
“If you watched our team play in the last month, we’re a much better team than we were even six or eight weeks ago,” Johnson said.
The two teams know each other extremely well and have an enormous amount of respect for one another. After romping through the tournament without breaking much of a sweat – American goalie Jessie Vetter even described herself as, “a cheerleader back there” – they will play their most meaningful game of the season.
USA captain Natalie Darwitz is expecting to see Canada using its physical advantage, even though there is supposed to be no deliberate body contact in women’s hockey.
“If you stand them up against our lineup, they’re a little bit bigger than we are,” Darwitz said. “We’re just going to need to have our feet moving a lot against them because if you get flat-footed, they’re going to throw a body into you. We need to be grittier and I think in games against Canada it’s taken a little while to get going because they’re very gritty and we have to respond to that grittiness and do the same thing to them.”
Ruggiero believes the Americans have another advantage with Vetter in goal. Canada will likely counter with Shannon Szabados, who stopped 11 shots in the semifinal for the shutout.
In speaking of Vetter, Ruggiero said, “She’s the best in the world. Let’s just put that out there.”
Ken Campbell is in Vancouver covering the Olympic hockey tournaments for THN.com. Read his other reports HERE.
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