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 days...it feels different," she said during interview last week with SI.com 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

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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