Examining U.S. vs. Canada women's hockey rivalry
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- It is here, at the host village of the 1932 and 1980 Olympic Winter Games, where stories 33 years old are swapped as if they happened yesterday. Along cobbled Main Street, window displays prominently feature collector's pins, faded-autograph posters and documentary VHS tapes. Nostalgia is everywhere here, perhaps with the exception of the $3.93 per gallon unleaded gas at Stewart's or the Gap outlet bordering frozen-over Mirror Lake.
Lake Placid, the site of the famed Miracle on Ice game, still breathes hockey regularly. On Easter weekend, the Can/Am midget, pee-wee and squirt tournaments occupied the Olympic Center. The Lake Placid Middle/High School, adjacent to the rink, remains the only high school in the country ever to hold a liquor license. (It was a private bar during the 1980 Games.)
At the Olympic Center, in a nook rink beyond the Miracle centerpiece, the U.S. women's national team held its pre-world championships camp last week. Twenty-eight players arrived, but only 23 will be on the roster in the U.S.' first preliminary game Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET, TSN, FASTHockey.com) against the only other nation that matters:
There have been 18 IIHF world championship and Olympic tournaments in women's hockey. The U.S. and Canada have met in the gold-medal game in 17 of the 18 -- the outlier being the 2006 Olympics. Expect no different come April 9, when the winner not only lifts the trophy, but also the weight of being the gold medal-favorite at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
The Canadians, led by Angela James, outscored Sweden, West Germany and Japan 50-1 en route to the knockout round. The tournament could be called gimmicky -- the Canadian women wore pink uniforms.
"It didn't really bother us that much because we wanted to do what it took," James said. "We wanted people to come see our game."
It worked. As little as a few hundred fans were reported to watch some of the early games, but 8,784 filled the 10,000-seat Ottawa Civic Centre for the final, televised in Canada.
"This was as big a victory for women's hockey as it was for Canada," coach Dave McMaster told the Toronto Star afterward. "And it will only get better from here."
Two years later, the International Olympic Committee added women's hockey to the Winter Olympic program.
Canada had won every world championship leading into women's hockey's first Olympics, but the U.S. scored six third-period goals in a 7-4 win in the final preliminary round game, which was meaningless because both teams had already clinched a spot in the gold-medal game three days later.
Away from the rink, U.S.-Canada relations had already turned icy, a development that was fostered by U.S. coach Ben Smith.
"He didn't want us to interact," said Angela Ruggiero, who at 18 was the youngest member of the 1998 U.S. Olympic team. Ruggiero is now retired and a member of the IOC.
Some Canadians were known to not get on elevators with Americans and vice versa when the teams stayed in the same hotel before heading to Nagano.
On the ice, trash talk in that round-robin game heightened the rivalry. U.S. forward Sandra Whyte upset Canadian forward Danielle Goyette, whose father died shortly before the Games. At the time, Goyette claimed Whyte said something in reference to her father. Whyte denied it but said she did curse at Goyette.
"I'll never talk about what happened," Goyette said by phone last week. Whyte didn't answer phone calls or respond to voicemails.
If there was ever a time that the U.S. had control of the rivalry, it was in the lead-up to the Salt Lake City Olympics. The Americans went 31-0 on a pre-Olympic tour, including eight wins over the Canadians.
Canada didn't need any more motivation, but got it via hearsay that the Americans were doing something with a Canadian flag in the U.S. locker room during the tournament. The phrase "stomped on" littered newsprint, which U.S. captain Cammi Granato vehemently denied. Both federations issued statements saying nothing disrespectful took place.
"We told [our team] between the second and third periods of the gold-medal game, 'Hey, they've got our flag in their room,'" said two-decade Canadian stalwart Hayley Wickenheiser, one of two female players in the EA Sports' NHL '13 video game.
Canada led 3-2 after two periods and scored two more to ice it in the third.
"I still think there was something to [the flag incident], even though they deny it all these years,'" Wickenheiser said.
The Americans had rebounded from a shocking semifinal loss at the 2006 Olympics -- where Ruggiero called out the Canadians for running up the score on minnow nations in preliminary play -- to win the 2008 and 2009 world championships. To beat the Canadians in Vancouver would give them a significant hold over the rivalry for the first time.
It didn't happen, of course. The Canadians were sparked by new talent -- goalie Shannon Szabados, then 23, notched the gold-medal shutout, and forward Marie Philip Poulin, 18, scored both goals.
What most remember is the Canadians' on-ice celebration well after the medal ceremony: Zambonis, cigars and Molsons.
Did that bother the Americans?
"None of us really gave them a hard time," U.S. forward Julie Chu said. "At the same time, the locker room is a great place to celebrate, too."
The rivalry has evolved, but in a way that's helped exponentially spread women's hockey from fewer than 10,000 registered female players in each country to pushing 100,000 on both sides of the border. Americans and Canadians play with and against each other in the NCAA system and a professional league now. They're more familiar, but the fire remains.
"I don't think 'friendly' would be the first word that comes to mind," said four-time Canadian Olympian Jennifer Botterill, who now works for TSN.
"They'll punch each other if they think they can get away with it," said Canadian Press writer Donna Spencer, who has covered nine world championships and two Olympics.
The most physical player now -- and perhaps in the sport's history -- is Canadian power forward Gillian Apps, a 6-foot, 180-pound connoisseur of cheese and penalty minutes. She's given a few U.S. players concussions, perhaps more. In 2007, she leveled U.S. goalie Chanda Gunn with a flying elbow, smacking her helmet off. Was there intent? Judge for yourself.
A year ago, Apps blindsided American defenseman Caitlin Cahow (5-foot-4, 150 pounds) in a professional league game. Cahow, who can't remember the hit but holds no animosity toward Apps, was bedridden for two months and off the ice for six. She visited the same specialist as Sidney Crosby, Dr. Ted Carrick.
"There were days I would wake up and I didn't know if I could go for a walk, get out of bed and open my eyes," said Cahow, who was at the Lake Placid camp, but didn't make the worlds team. "He saved my life in a lot of ways."
Apps said she didn't remember the play in a phone interview last week.
"I have no idea," she said. "I knew [Cahow] had concussion problems, but I didn't know what it was from. Those are the things that you don't like to see happen to anyone."
This year's worlds offer the U.S. a chance at revenge -- not on Apps or any specific player -- but for what happened at the 2012 world championships. The Americans throttled the Canadians 9-2 in a preliminary game but lost the final in overtime.
"That one stuck with me for a while," said Amanda Kessel, the reigning NCAA Player of the Year with undefeated champion Minnesota. "It's awful to hear the Canadians' national anthem."
Forward Kacey Bellamy, who has played with the U.S. national team since 2008, said she still has visions of standing on the blue line and watching the Canadians celebrate.
"Every time I hit the ice and the weight room," she said, "I think about that loss. ... I was pissed off."
Players from both teams, coaches and experts offer mixed opinions on who the favorite is this week in Ottawa, and also in Sochi. Everybody has a different perspective of the rivalry, too. Even the media relations' staff don't quiet see eye to eye. The all-time head-to-head record between the nations is, according to Canada, 67-39-1 over 107 games. The U.S. lists it as 32-10-11-52-1 (W-OTW-OTL-L-T) in 106 games.
However, the April 9 game and subsequent records won't mean as much a year from now, when the teams are playing in Sochi. No players from the USA's 1998 Olympic gold medal-winning team remain on the current team. Ruggiero suggested it might be better for the Americans to lose in Ottawa and take an underdog role into Sochi.
"The players change, but the feelings always stay the same," Ruggiero said.