‘It gets your blood flowing’: US-Canada hockey rivalry peaking for Olympics

(Derek Leung/Getty Images)

It will be three years ago this coming February that the United States women’s hockey team defeated Canada in a shootout at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang to capture Olympic gold.

Much has transpired since that historic day.

While the global COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the women’s hockey calendar over the past two years, new faces emerged on the Canadian and American teams. The IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship returned in August, with Canada regaining its form and defeating the United States in the gold-medal game on Marie-Philip Poulin’s overtime winner.

Now, the Rivalry Series, which features a total of nine games over four months, gives the teams a chance to reignite the competition in different American and Canadian cities. And with the Beijing Olympics under 100 days away, the longtime rivalry is peaking once again.

“It motivates you and helps build on your successes,” Hilary Knight said after Team USA’s Game 3 victory in the Rivalry Series. “You can sit back and say, ‘OK, what worked well? What didn’t work?’ But winning always feels good. That’s why we sign up as competitors.”

The storied battles between these two teams began with the United States defeating Canada 3-1 at the 1998 Nagano Games, the first time the Olympics featured women’s ice hockey. For the next 16 years, Canada dominated at the Games, completing a run of four straight gold medals with a dramatic overtime win in Sochi in 2014, courtesy of Poulin. Team USA’s win in PyeongChang not only snapped Canada’s streak but also proved to the world that the Americans weren’t going away.

Every time the players lace up their skates and put on their respective jerseys, the rivalry is reborn.

“I think both teams match up well against each other and we can expect a battle moving forward,” said Canada head coach Troy Ryan.

Canada took Games 1 and 2 of the Rivalry Series in October. On the ice in Hartford, Conn. and Allentown, Penn., the Canadians outscored the Americans 6-3, with Sarah Fillier and Emily Clark leading Team Canada with two goals each.

As the series shifted to Kingston and Ottawa for Games 3 and 4 last week, fans packed the arenas to watch the best women’s hockey players in the world. Game 3 started well for Team Canada. Poulin fired a blazing wrist shot through traffic on the power play to open the scoring. Not even two minutes later, Fillier’s shot off the faceoff made it 2-0 Canada.

But then Team USA found its form, wearing the Canadians down with physical play on the boards and winning puck battles. Hayley Scamurra brought Team USA within one before Game 3 turned into the Hilary Knight show. The star forward scored to tie the game and and then slotted home the overtime winner to give the U.S. a 3-2 victory.

Goalkeeper Maddie Rooney led the way for Team USA in Game 4, helping the U.S. overcome Canada’s 26-20 shot advantage to win 2-0 behind goals from Knight and Amanda Kessel.

“It’s never easy losing to the Americans,” Poulin said.

The U.S. team has a new look to it three years after PyeongChang, most notably behind the bench. Interim head coach Joel Johnson will lead the U.S. into Beijing after Bob Corkum, who succeeded Robb Stauber in 2018, stepped down earlier this year due to COVID-19 concerns. While mainstays Knight, Kessel and Brianna Decker return, Team USA will replace stars like Meghan Duggan, Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyn Lamoureux-Davidson with an influx of young players looking to make their mark in Beijing.

Jincy Dunne, a 24-year-old defender, made Team USA’s 25-player roster for the 2014 Sochi Olympics but was cut when the roster had to be trimmed down to 21. Just 17 years old at the time, Dunne would have been the youngest player ever to skate for a U.S. women’s hockey team at the Olympics.

Over the years, she’s picked up valuable experience, winning gold at the U18 World Championship and the 4 Nations Cup. At Ohio State, Dunne was named the university’s Female Athlete of the Year and was a two-time AHCA First-Team All-American.

“Each squad is going to be different,” said Team USA blueliner Megan Keller. “We have a whole new team with veterans and rookies. You have to find your chemistry as a team and who you are. We’re looking ahead to 2022, focusing on one step at a time and getting to the next level.”

Team Canada is taking a similar approach, with veterans like Poulin and Natalie Spooner mentoring the talented newcomers.

Fillier, 21, is one of those players who can make an impact now and into the future for Canada. The Princeton alum made her Canadian national team debut in 2018 at the 4 Nations Cup before being named Ivy League Rookie of the Year after the 2018-19 college hockey season. Fillier’s playmaking and ability to create offense have made her a potential top-six forward on the Canadian Olympic squad.

“She’s a highly skilled player who plays the game with a lot of speed,” Ryan said. “She’s gained a lot of confidence over the last year. She’s made some great adjustments to her game to consistently contribute, whether it’s on the power play or 5-on-5. I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot of her moving forward.”

Since the win at the World Championships, Ryan has preached the importance of showing up to work to get better every day and taking each game as it comes.

“The focus has been primarily on us being the best version of ourselves,” Ryan said. “The more we stick to what makes us successful, the better we’re going to be against our opposition.”

Every Rivalry Series game is an opportunity for the coaching staffs to evaluate players as they prepare to name their Olympic rosters.

“It’s fun to be around them every day,” Johnson said of the U.S. players in camp. “They’re making each other better. They’re making me better. They’re challenging me as a coach.”

Hockey Canada CEO Tom Renney said that the Canadian Olympic team will be announced in the middle of December. Team USA is expected to unveil its final roster on Jan. 1.

The final games of the Rivalry Series, taking place in Canada in January after the announcement of both Olympic rosters, will serve as the most compelling tune-ups for Beijing. When the puck drops on the Olympic ice in February, the players will be ready to add another chapter to the storied rivalry.

“It gets your blood flowing in a different way, and it brings the best level of a competitor in you,” Knight said about facing Team Canada. “There’s nothing like suiting up, throwing the jersey on, and going out there with all the pride on the line.”

“We’ve got a great group here and we are just focusing on the process,” said Canada forward Jamie Lee Rattray. “Every day, we get up to go to work and take it day by day. We show in these games against them that we can play with a lot of grit, that we have our backs out there, which is something that builds a team over the year.”

Lukas Weese is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He also serves as Associate Editor at Sportsnet and has contributed to other outlets such as The Toronto Star and The Undefeated. Follow him on Twitter @Weesesports.