There’s no more expansive a rivalry in Olympic sport than between Canada and the United States, in women’s hockey. On Wednesday, that story manifests on the ice for the first time at this year’s Olympic tournament.
No two countries have played more games against each other at the highest level, with a championship on the line.
In the four Olympic Winter Games since women’s hockey was added in 1998, the gold medal game has been Canada-USA three times. On top of the three Olympic meetings, these rivals have played in all 15 IIHF World Championships finals. Canada is 10-5 but the US has taken four of the last five titles.
Here is Sochi, Canada has yet to allow a goal in two games, the USA has been scored on once. Combined, they’ve put away 20 goals for. The way the pool structure has been set-up, after today, the most likely next meeting would be in the gold medal game.
These teams are often unfriendly to each other, and more than the casual hockey scuffle. “It’s pretty intense right now,” said Olympic veteran Meaghan Mikkelson recently, “Ever since I’ve been on the team it’s been a massive rivalry. I think in an Olympic year it’s taken up to another level and I think that’s what’s happening right now.”
On more than one occasion this season, gloves have dropped, and physicality has escalated. And the play between whistles has been intense. Since October, the US has the winning record, 4-and-3 in seven meetings.
Mikkelson confidently assesses, “All of these games are a part of the process and a part of the journey. In an Olympic year there’s a lot of ups and a lot of downs but I think that in order to get to the end you have to experience all of that. I think that with all these games that’s what’s happening and within that the rivalry continues to build. We all love it. In the end it will come down to what we bring in Sochi and I have full confidence that we’ll be able to bring our A-game.”
Hayley Wickenheiser was once named Sports Illustrated’s Top 20 Toughest Athletes. Her powerful presence and surly demeanor on the ice might be influencing this team. She’s also seen this show before, having played in the last four Olympic Winter Games. And, the bulk of major match-ups against the stars and stripes.
“It’s the same heated rivalry. Last go round we had a couple of incidents in games leading up to the Olympics. There’s a lot of emotion. There’s a lot at stake and both teams are really proud to do what they do so that’s just part of what you’ve seen.”
Wickenheiser has once-in-a-generation skill. At age 36, she could be rounding her final corner at the Olympic Winter Games. Many athletes use final trips as opportunities to experience new things. For Hayley, it’s about doing something she’s done multiple times, “The only thing I want to experience is winning a gold medal. I’ve experienced lots, and seen a lot in the village. When you go to the Olympics you go there to win and compete so I’d love to play the best hockey I’ve played and win a gold medal”
The team features nine first-time Olympians, and boasts strength from the net out, “Our goaltending is for sure the best in the world which is so important. I think on defence we’ve got some young and inexperienced players but some good upside and our forwards have all the veteran experience and the skill that can put the puck in the net. I like our depth through the line-up and I like the look that we have on our team,” said Wickenheiser.
Canada is the three-time defending gold medallist. To make it four, they’ll need to play great hockey and, endure whatever the rivalry may bring.
WHO: National Women’s Hockey Team including Hayley Wickenheiser, Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford, Meaghan Mikkelson and Meghan Agosta-Marciano
WHAT: Preliminary round vs. USA
WHEN: Wednesday, February 12 at 7:30 am ET / 4:30 am PT