SOCHI, Russia — If they could have, the US women’s hockey team would have stayed on the ice at Canada Hockey Place four years ago and played the Canadians in a best-of-three, best-of-seven or best-of-nine, as many as it took to claim the gold medal. “From the moment the buzzer went in Vancouver we have prepared for this,” said Julie Chu, the team’s grande dame, who is looking for a gold to go along with her two silvers and a bronze.
Since 2010, the Americans have won two of three world crowns and split eight meetings with Canada since October. On Thursday, the Americans and their archrivals will meet inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome with Chu and her teammates chasing the gilded keepsake that has eluded them since 1998, when the US shocked the four-time world champions in the inaugural tournament in Nagano in a final that created a hockey boom in the States that has reverberated around the planet.
“There are 11 of us who have been training since Vancouver who came up short,” says forward Monique Lamoureux. “It’s something that’s motivated us for the last four years. It’s something that really sticks with us.”
The Canadians, who’ll be chasing their fourth straight crown, haven’t lost a Game at Olympus since that 1998 final. They held off the Americans, 3-2, in the 2002 championship in Salt Lake City, then blanked them, 2-0, on their own ice last time. “It’s going to be a battle,” predicted Canadian forward Meghan Agosta. “It always is when we play against them. But we’ve been training for this all year and we are prepared.”
The Americans, who came into the tournament as world champions after dethroning their northern neighbors in Ottawa last April, are on a surge after shredding the Swedes, 6-1, and outshooting them, 70-9, and will leave this seaside icebox with no worse than a silver medal. “Silver is nice and I congratulated our team on the fact that we have that no matter what,” said coach Katey Stone. “I also reminded them that we came to Russia for gold.”
To collect it the Yanks will have to dictate the terms and tempo of the proceedings, which they decidedly did not do in the prelims when they took a 1-0 lead into the third period, then conceded three unanswered goals in a little more than a dozen minutes, two by Agosta. “We didn’t play our best game,” acknowledged Stone. “We didn’t play on our toes and we let them back us up. Wait and see tomorrow. I think you will see a very different, very aggressive US team.”
The 3-2 loss, coming after the Americans had won the final four tuneup meetings with the Canadians after dropping the first three, prompted an intense video session which spared nobody. “We took it to heart and it was a good wake-up call for our team and a chance for our coaches to give us a kick in the butt,” said Lamoureux.
In recent global tournaments, the loser of the teams’ first encounter has won the rematch. After the Americans pounded them, 9-2, in the prelims at the 2012 world championships in Burlington, Vt., the Canadians won the final, 5-4, in overtime. Last year after the US lost its group match in a 3-2 shootout, it won the title by the same score.
“It’s always been a good matchup between Canada and the US,” said Kevin Dineen, the former Florida Panthers coach who took over as head man in mid-December after Dan Church stepped down. “They have seen us and we have seen them. We have a lot of respect for each other.”
If not necessarily a lot of affection. The Americans weren’t enthralled four years ago when the Canadians returned to the ice after the medal ceremony smoking victory cigars and swilling champagne, but what hurt them most was that their archrivals got to celebrate and they didn’t. Now the chance comes around again. “It’s not just about Vancouver,” said Meghan Duggan. “Some of us have dreamed about this since we were little kids.”