Karyn Bye has been playing for the U.S. women's hockey team for
more than 10 years, a decade during which she and her teammates
have grown accustomed to shellacking opposing national teams. At
last April's world championships in Minnesota, for example, the
U.S. beat Germany, China, Finland and Russia by a combined score
of--no misprint here--41-1. Games against Team Canada, which
defeated the U.S. 3-2 in the final of that tournament, are
another matter. Those matches are commonly decided by a single
goal, quite often have a championship riding on them and, in
Bye's words, "are always a war."
This is an article from the Feb. 19, 2002 issue
"We know we have to leave every piece of ourselves out on the
ice," says Bye, who recently moved to defense after playing
forward for nine years, "because the Canadians demand that with
the way they play. When people ask us what's going on with our
team, they don't say, 'Are you going to win?' They say, 'Are you
going to beat Canada?'"
It's difficult to look at today's semifinals (Canada-Finland and
U.S.-Sweden) and see anything but a Canada-U.S. final. Since the
first world championships, in 1990, the U.S. and Canada have
faced each other in the final of every international tournament
that they've both competed in. The U.S. has gone 9-21 against
Canada in tournament play but has never lost a game to another
country, including nontournament games. The teams have met 51
times (Canada leads the series 28-23), which is nearly three
times more often than either squad has played anyone else. This
familiarity has bred, in no particular order, mutual contempt,
mutual respect, the highest caliber of women's hockey in history,
heated debates about whether the women's game should legalize the
body-slamming that every U.S.-Canada game is rife with anyway and
the single fiercest rivalry of these Olympic Games.
"We're at the point where everything we go through in practice is
basically in preparation to meet them," says Canada forward and
captain Cassie Campbell. "The time may come when a team like
Finland or Russia comes up and knocks one of us off, but right
now it's us and them. In the back of your mind you're always
thinking, What are they going to bring?"
Never did the U.S. women bring more to the ice than on Feb. 17,
1998, at Big Hat Arena in Nagano, when the team shut out Canada
for the first 56 minutes of a 3-1 win. The victory clinched the
first Olympic gold medal awarded in women's hockey. Bye led the
team with five goals in the Games, and you may have seen images
of her wrapped in an oversized Old Glory just moments after the
historic win. The Canadians certainly saw her--and they cringed.
"It was awful watching them celebrate, seeing them with those
gold medals," says Campbell. "Does that mean more than all the
world championships? I don't know. It sure sticks out more in our
For all the grandeur of Olympic success, the U.S. remains, by
objective standards, the second-best team in the world. Of the
seven world championships played in the past 12 years--including
the three since Nagano--Canada has won every one, an achievement
that some consider worth the weight of Olympic gold. "You can't
get better than winning in the Olympics," says U.S. captain Cammi
Granato, who has been with the team since its inception, "but
each year you work all season for the world championships, and
then each year they win. You end up just looking at each other in
a daze, saying, 'When are we going to beat these guys?'"
"The way I see it," says U.S. coach Ben Smith, "is that we've
both got what the other one wants. We're both trying to do
whatever we can to be better than the other. It's almost like
playing in a mirror, except you know that if you're not careful,
your reflection will get ahead of you."
In the early days of women's hockey there was no argument that
Canada was the fairest team of them all. It trounced the U.S. in
the finals of the 1990, '92 and '94 world championships and
maintained a standard of skill and execution through the
mid-'90s that the U.S. could only marvel at. When USA Hockey
hired Smith as coach in 1996, the goal, he says, "was just to
get to somewhere near Canada's level."
Still, the seeds of a rivalry had been sown. In 1994 Bye and
Granato were attending graduate school and playing hockey, at
Concordia University in Montreal. Shortly after the U.S. lost
6-3 to Canada at the world championships in Lake Placid, N.Y.,
that April, Bye and Granato drove back to school together. On
the way they were harangued, half-seriously and at length, by
the Canadian border patrol. "The guys there got on us pretty
hard for losing in the worlds," says Granato. "In a way it felt
good--I mean, at least they knew who we were."
In 1997 the U.S. announced itself on a much larger scale. The
steady improvement of women's college hockey programs, in tandem
with Smith's tireless recruiting, had yielded the best, deepest
U.S. team to date. At the worlds that April, before a hostile
crowd in Kitchener, Ont., the U.S. took Canada to overtime before
losing 4-3. Smith says the near victory inspired a resolve in his
players, a sense of belief and a dedication to off-ice training
that prepared the team for a series of games that ratcheted this
feud to Hatfield-McCoy proportions. To drum up fan awareness, the
U.S. and Canada played each other 13 times in the 3 1/2 months
leading up to Nagano. Canada won seven games, the U.S. six. "We
played them too many times," says Canada forward Vicky Sunohara.
"They learned from us and got better and better."
And the games got rougher and rougher. Players on both teams
regularly tested, and often ignored, the prohibition against
bodychecking in the women's game. During a late-January matchup
Granato and Canada forward Hayley Wickenheiser got in a
sticks-high collision that left Granato with a gash in her upper
lip. Wickenheiser also collided with Bye, and near the end of the
match U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero--who is nicknamed Rugger
partly because she likes a good scrum--dropped her gloves and
squared off against Wickenheiser. No one there had ever seen a
fight in a women's hockey game. Stunned referees immediately
The teams were still seething a few weeks later when they faced
off in the final game of the double-elimination preliminary round
in Nagano. Because both clubs were 4-0 and guaranteed to advance,
many in the media made the mistake of labeling the round-robin
finale as meaningless. "There's no such thing as a meaningless
game between these teams," says U.S. goalie Sara DeCosta. "I
don't care if it's a three-on-three shinny."
In the most memorable nonchampionship game in the history of the
rivalry, the U.S. trailed Canada 4-1 with 12:55 remaining in the
third period before scoring four times in less than six minutes
and pulling away to a 7-4 victory. But the game will be
remembered for more than that magnificent flurry. The U.S. took
28 penalty minutes in the game; Canada took 14. Ruggiero received
a 10-minute misconduct for crushing forward Jayna Hefford against
the boards. "They weren't just trying to intimidate us, they were
trying to injure us," Hefford later complained.
The high sticks and high tempers didn't end with the final horn.
Just before the postgame handshake U.S. forward Sandra Whyte
shouted at Canada's Danielle Goyette, who had leveled U.S.
defenseman Colleen Coyne in the second period and whose father
had recently died. Goyette ran crying into the dressing room,
and Canada coach Shannon Miller later charged that Whyte had
"made a comment about [Goyette's] father's death and then
laughed." Whyte denied referring to Goyette's father but
admitted, "I said something I regret."
The helter-skelter game created an intense atmosphere when the
teams faced off for the gold three days later. Olympians Patrick
Roy and Eric Lindros spoke to Canada's women's team and urged
them not to retaliate. They didn't. In the end Canada went
quietly and the U.S. took home the gold. "I can't say we quite
hate them," says Granato, "but it's like this: If an elevator
full of them stops at your floor, you take the next one."
A few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, a
package addressed to the U.S. women's hockey team arrived at its
training facility in Lake Placid. The package contained a brown,
spiral-bound notebook from Team Canada. Inside, each member of
the Canadian team had written something to the U.S. players,
expressing solidarity, empathy and, in some cases, comfort for
U.S. forward Kathleen Kauth, whose father, Donald, was killed in
the World Trade Center collapse. (Kauth was dropped from the team
in December, in a pre-Games cut.) "We're not talking a sentence
or two," says Bye. "We're talking three or four pages that some
of them wrote. You get emotional seeing something like that."
In late October, when the teams played in Salt Lake City and San
Jose, Team Canada's uniforms bore patches depicting the U.S. flag
at half-staff. Campbell and DeCosta came together to do a
promotional spot for women's hockey. "In a sense we're on the
same team," says Campbell. "We're all trying to grow the game, to
get some attention and get younger girls wanting to play. We need
each other to do that. Up here, nothing gets people more excited
than when we play the U.S."
The reverse is also true. "The games against Canada get the
adrenaline flowing," says Granato. "In a sense it doesn't matter
who we play for the gold medal, but I have to admit that
whenever I let myself visualize us winning that final game, I
always see Canada on the other side of the ice."
Hefford, "they were trying to injure us."
'Are you going to beat Canada?'"