USA-Canada rivalry draws women's game into hockey fight debate

(Lake Placid) -- According to Team USA forward Amanda Kessel, the most exciting days are the ones when she wakes up knowing that she's going to be playing Canada. "You almost feel it in your whole body on those game feels different," she said during interview last week with at Herb Brooks Arena, where the U.S. was preparing for the Four Nations Cup tournament.

The hockey rivalry between the American and the Canadian women is one of the most heated in international sports. Before Canada beat Team USA 4-2 at the Four Nations tournament on Nov. 6, the two teams had already squared off twice in the previous month. The U.S. lost both games, first falling 3-2 on Oct. 12 in the opening game of their pre-Olympic Bring on the World Tour in Burlington, Vt., and then 6-3 on Oct. 17 in Boisbriand, Quebec. While the game on Canadian soil featured more goals, it was the one in Burlington that made headlines -- and exemplified the fierceness of the rivalry -- thanks to a full-on brawl between players in the third period.

"It was a 3-2 game, fast paced, really physical -- and there was a play where our player was driving the net hard," American forward (and three-time Olympic team member) Julie Chu said. "It wasn't to be dirty or anything, but there was contact with the [Canadian] goalie. On their side they needed to protect their goalie, so they reacted a certain way. And on our side we reacted by protecting our player."

Players in women's hockey rarely drop their gloves to engage in fisticuffs. But fighting is so engrained in the culture of game that when the world's two powerhouse teams meet, players sometimes find it tough to control their emotions.

"In the NHL they hire fighters, but it's not a part of our game," said Team USA forward Erica Lawler, who was on the national team at the 2010 Olympics and the 2012 World Championships. "However, what I liked about that fight in Burlington was that you saw people playing out of passion ... When push comes to shove, you've got to have your teammates back no matter what."

The IIHF, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada found no grounds for handing out suspensions related to the brawl, which wasn't the first between the two teams -- Canada and the U.S. had fought under similar circumstances during an exhibition game in October 2009. The possibility of another fight will always be there when the two teams play.

"This is a tough sport," said Reagan Carey, the general manager of Team USA. "The shots are hard and [the players are] out there going so fast and giving it all they have, so it's easy for tempers to flare on the ice." Carey, who has worked in both the NHL and the U.S Hockey leagues, has seen plenty of high stakes competition, but she insists that it would be hard to find a rivalry comparable to the one between the U.S and Team Canada.

The enmity dates back to the founding of both programs in 1990. At first, it was fed mostly by the previously existing rivalry between the two countries' men's teams. But within a few seasons the women's rivalry took on a life of its own, as the two countries pulled far ahead of every other team on the international circuit. The U.S. and Canada became unbeatable, unless they were playing each other.

When Chu joined the national team in 2000, she remembers the rivalry was already running strong. Team USA had won the first women's Olympic gold medal at Nagano in 1998, upsetting Canada 3-1 in the final game.

U.S. forward Amanda Kessel (28) is the little sister of Maple Leafs sniper Phil Kessel.
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images

Kessel, who still plays college hockey at Minnesota, says she first realized the magnitude of the rivalry while playing at the U-18 world championships in 2008. "I think we just hate them because we've been the two best teams and played in so many championships against each other," she said. "So when they beat us, that hate grows a little bit more."

"I think you're born into it," Lawler said. "If you're a talented kid you want to be an Olympian someday, and you know part of being an Olympian means you've got to beat Canada. You know you want to beat the red team."

At the Four Nations tournament last week, the U.S players had their hearts set on redemption after two straight losses to Team Canada. But the scene on the Americans' bench during the Nov. 6 game belied the fierceness of the rivalry. There was no trash talk, no sense of anxiety, no yelling. Everyone appeared to be focused on the play and on doing their jobs. The score was tied 2-2 midway through the third period, but Canada stepped up its physical play and the U.S. women lost their composure, surrendering two late goals.

"It's definitely a rivalry that pushes us to get better," said Chu after the game. "For me, its not hatred because I'm actually friends with a lot of those players. But if I'm wearing a USA hockey jersey, they're my opponent."

Lawler echoes that sentiment, saying "I have so much respect for all those players. They're all very talented, and to be frank, without that U.S.-Canada rivalry, women's hockey wouldn't be where it is today."

Team USA and Team Canada will go head to head in at least four more exhibition games before heading to Sochi for the Winter Olympics in February. No doubt, more than a few people will be interested to see if the gloves come off again.

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