SOCHI, Russia Good fences make good neighbors, and long borders make great rivals.
When the women’s hockey teams from the United States and Canada meet, it’s never just a game. It’s always a rematch for the best players in the world, and the one on Wednesday night ended 3-2 in Canada’s favor.
The Olympic serial drama dating to 1998 continued with a convincing comeback for Canada, which scored three goals in the first 15 minutes of the third period to bury the Americans.
Hayley Wickenheiser’s go-ahead goal appeared to trickle under the U.S. goaltender’s pads and across the line after the whistle had blown, but that was the only controversy — and a minor one — in an energetic round-robin game that packed Shayba Arena with fans waving Stars and Stripes flags and wearing maple leaf face paint.
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“Whether there’s a gold medal at stake or not, when we play the Americans it feels like a gold-medal game,” Wickenheiser said.
Everyone tensed for another fist-flinging brawl, like the two that enlivened fall exhibition games. The women knew better than to get into a catfight on a global telecast.
They delivered hard knocks when necessary but their game is more fluid than that of the body-checking NHL. Smiles are intact. Once you watch it, you will be hooked on the blistering pace and genius skating skills.
Add animosity and you’ve got the best rivalry of the Winter Games. The United States and Canada both advanced to Monday’s semifinals and are expected to meet again Feb. 20 in the final. It will be hot inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome. The teams have played each other in three of the four Olympic finals, with the United States winning the first 3-1 and Canada winning in 2002 and 2010. Canada beat Sweden in 2006.
“The Olympics is our Stanley Cup,” Canadian goalie Charline Labonte said.
Canada and the United States have played each other in all 15 world championships, with Canada winning 10. But the United States won in Ottawa last year, and also won the last four games of seven-game exhibition tour leading into the Olympics.
Winning gold in Sochi is critical for the Americans. Forward Julie Chu, 31, is tired of silver medals.
“We’ve seen them so many times, but it only gets more intense,” said Chu, a 2007 Harvard graduate. She plays for the Montreal Stars, so she is often playing, rooming and eating with her Canadian counterparts. “We are good friends, but when we step on the ice in our national team uniforms we are ready to compete. You learn to make that switch.”
There’s a lot of stock civil, sporting discourse about respect. But Chu admits that some of the players do not like each other.
How can they when the rivalry compares to Ohio State-Michigan and Yankees-Red Sox, said Kevin Dineen, coach of Canada and a former NHL player who lived in Ohio and New England.
“To be really good you have to have a foil,” he said. “I’ve always been a fan of emotion. That’s how I survived as a player. There’s no lack of emotion in the female game.”
The teams share the responsibility for raising the profile and quality of the women’s game. The pressure is on to upgrade other countries’ teams as the International Olympic Committee searches for flawed sports on its flabby program. The IOC has pledged to keep women’s hockey in the Games despite the top-heavy nature of the eight-team tournament and some lopsided scores. Softball wasn’t so fortunate. The IOC ruled that softball did not have enough international depth and kicked it out of the Summer Games.
One would think that developing women’s sports deserve patience, but these decisions come from the old-fashioned IOC, which held women’s ski jumping out until Tuesday under the belief that it was too dangerous for the feminine body, the same reasoning that kept women marathon runners out until 1984. Women’s boxing finally got its debut in 2012, and the public loved it.
Hockey is another visually stunning example of a woman’s capability in a contact sport, one with helmets and high-speed collisions. Players have been proving they are not made of porcelain for 16 years.
No melees Wednesday like those in October and December, but a little bad blood spilled when Wickenheiser charged toward the U.S. net and slammed a shot that appeared to have been stopped by goalie Jessie Vetter until it slipped beneath her pads.
“You celebrate when you see the puck cross the line — it doesn’t matter how,” said the wily Wickenheiser, who jumped up before the goal light illuminated. She’s going for her fourth gold in her fifth Olympics.
Said U.S. coach Katey Stone: “I did hear the whistle blow before the puck went in, but I’m not going to hang my hat on that one. We can play better.”
Canada went up 3-1 on Meghan’s Agosta’s breakaway. Anne Schleper scored with 65 seconds left, but the United States couldn’t manage a tie during a power-play scramble in the last 31 seconds.
The loss was another downer for the United States, which has seen stars Shaun White, Bode Miller and Shani Davis miss the podium. Its nine medals as of Wednesday put it behind the 37-medal pace of 2010, but there are 12 new events at the Sochi Games, plus opportunities of which women’s hockey is a prime one. The United States earnestly wants to break Canada’s streak. Losing both men’s and women’s gold medal games in hockey-crazed Vancouver is a memory that still burns.
“We know each others’ systems and it will come down to who adjusts best in the game,” Chu said. “We hate to lose, especially to Canada.”