Invariably the topic comes up in every conversation with members of the US women’s hockey team. You’ve beaten the Canadians for all these world titles. So what happens when you play them at the Olympics?
“That’s certainly the age-old question that everyone loves to ask,” said captain Meghan Duggan. “We’ve heard that one a lot.”
The Americans defeated Canada to win the inaugural five-ringed tournament in 1998 in Nagano, prompting a boom on the women’s side of the sport, from the youth to the collegiate levels. Since then, their northern neighbors have won four consecutive gold medals at the Games, vanquishing the US three times in the championship game.
“We know it’s been 20 years,” said coach Robb Stauber, who was an assistant in 2014. “We don’t have to be geniuses to do that math. I think for us it’s not necessarily about the 20 years but more about, it’s time. We’ve got to bring home a gold medal.”
The most distressing aspect of the continuous shortfalls is that the last three times the US came into the Games as world champions. Their Sochi loss was particularly painful since the Americans led by two goals with less than four minutes to play in regulation before coming unglued. After pulling their goalie, the Canadians tied the game with 55 seconds remaining, then won, 3-2, in overtime with two Yanks in the penalty box.
“Obviously we would like to change that result, but you have to ask yourself why, which we were able to do,” said Stauber. “It’s a very difficult question.
“Were there things that could have been done that would have enhanced our chances of winning? Absolutely we can say yes, but we can’t say just because we would do those things that we would guarantee a win, because quite frankly there’s no way that anybody can guarantee a win.
“But we’re all about improving our chances of winning. That’s first and foremost. The players have taken that very seriously, day in and day out.”
As dispiriting as the Sochi loss was, it served to make the Americans more resolute to get the job done in PyeongChang.
“Sometimes you really do need to fail to succeed,” observed defenseman Kacey Bellamy, one of 10 holdovers from the 2014 squad. “I don’t take back any of those losses because of how much we’ve learned. It’s when you win over and over again you don’t think you need to change things.”
The Americans rebounded to win the last three global crowns, extending their dominance to seven of the last eight. Each of those seven times, they defeated the Canadians in the final, twice on their rivals’ home ice. No country other than those two has ever won a world title nor even played in the championship game.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a rivalry in any sport, men’s or women’s, that has had such a longstanding rivalry like we have with Canada,” said forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando. “When we train day in and day out, we picture playing in the gold-medal game and it being against them.”
If familiarity has bred competition, if not contention, it may be because these rivals know each other all too well. Nearly all of the Canadians played with or against the Americans for US college teams, 10 of them for either Wisconsin or Cornell. Head coach Laura Schuler, a Northeastern grad who played on the 1998 squad, directs the Dartmouth program. And captain Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the tying and winning goals in Sochi, is a former Boston University captain.
“Every time we play, it’s like a final,” said Poulin. “We can see the rivalry. It’s so big. It’s so intense. So every time we play, it gets better every time.”
The rivalry also has gotten decidedly closer on the scoreboard. Six of the last eight world title games were decided by one goal. Four, including the last two, went to overtime. The differences between the teams are so minute by now that an untimely penalty, a careless clearance, or a bounce of the puck can decide the champion.
The puck bounced the Canadians’ way in Sochi but hasn’t since. Two years ago, they were shut out in Kamloops in the world finale. Last year, they led the title match in Plymouth, Mich., before losing in the extra session.
“We take that seriously, and it still hurts,” said forward Haley Irwin.
So when the Canadians took a 5-2 beating from the US in Quebec City in the October opener of their exhibition series, an infuriated Schuler called it “an embarrassment to our country.”
Her chastened charges responded with a 5-1 triumph three days later in Boston and went on to win the final four meetings by a 9-3 count.
“We need to elevate in a lot of areas,” acknowledged Duggan. “Goal scoring is one of them.”
While its global title gives the US the favorite’s tag going into the Games, the Americans understand that they’re not guaranteed a gold-medal rematch. They learned that to their dismay a dozen years ago in Turin, where they squandered a 2-0 lead to the Swedes in their semifinal, lost in a shootout, and had to settle for bronze.
“We caution our players day in day out that it’s one game at a time,” said Stauber, whose squad will face Finland, Russia, and Canada in the prelims. “You don’t go to the Olympics and just get to the gold-medal game. That would be a mistake on our part.”
Ever since Turin, the Americans have made it a point to get to the championship game in every Olympic and world tournament.
“We’re always hungry,” said Duggan. “It runs deep in your blood and in your soul.”
The Yanks still believe that they were the best sextet on the planet in 2014.
“The scariest thing is that we’re even better than we were before,” reckoned Hilary Knight. “That’s what’s so exciting.”
The Americans have been the best coming into the Games four straight times now. They returned home bemedaled but unfulfilled from the last three.
“This team is so ripe,” said Knight.
What she and her teammates discovered the hard way is that at Olympus an entire quadrennium comes down to one night.
“We say to the players, no matter what we do, no matter how we prepare, you still have to drop the puck,” said Stauber. “It’s a game of hockey. There’s no guaranteed outcome.
“But we believe that the work that’s been put in the last several years is going to give our team the best chance for the outcome that they want. They know it, they believe in it, and as our players have stated over and over, they’re really hungry for a different result.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.