PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Here they are again at this familiar precipice, both motivated by history and tormented by it. The U.S. women’s hockey team has yet another shot at winning a gold medal at the Olympics. And yet again, the Canadians stand in their way.
Hilary Knight has been to this point twice before and had to walk away with silver medals, watching the Americans’ on-ice rivals celebrate. Let her explain what that’s like.
“It’s like having a bad relationship and it going sour. That’s what it is,” the 28-year-old forward said. “It’s always going to be there. It’s innately a part of your fabric. At the same time, it’s motivated me tremendously. “
There might not be a more intense, reliable rivalry at these Olympics. The United States and the Canadian women’s hockey teams seem perpetually on a crash course to collide in the gold medal match. It happens at the world championships, where the Americans have won four straight titles over their neighbors to the north. And it’s happened at the Winter Games, where Canada has won four straight gold medals, including three times over the United States.
It will happen again here in PyeongChang when the two teams tussle Thursday morning with four years’ worth of bragging rights at stake.
The players from the two teams don’t need a history lesson. They know when women’s hockey was first contested at the 1998 Olympics, the United States topped Canada. “I was probably in the crib watching that game,” American goaltender Maddie Rooney said.
And they know that the world championships have been staged 18 times since 1990, and the United States and Canada have faced each other for gold exactly 18 times (with Canada winning 10 of them).
“I think the rivalry between Canada and the U.S. has been there since the inception,” said Laura Schuler, who is the head coach of the Canadian team and played on the 1998 squad that lost to the Americans.
While there are two sides to any rivalry, both Americans and Canadians use similar words to describe it: intense, healthy, special, exciting, heated. They also know that every game is totally up for grabs. The Canadians have managed to win the past five meetings, including a 2-1 victory in round-robin play in these Olympics last week. Canada won by just one goal at the 2014 Olympics, and the Americans have won their past two world titles also by a single score — both in overtime.
“Every single time we’ve ever faced the U.S., it’s been a one goal difference,” Schuler said. “It’s gone into overtime. It’s been a back-and-forth hockey game. It’s best-on-best competition. I think that’s what makes it so great.”
Both sides view parts of the past differently, perhaps not surprisingly, burying the pain and clinging to the hope.
“What’s in the past gives us confidence,” said Genevieve Lacasse, the Canadian goaltender playing in her second Winter Games.
But not all of these memories are warm ones for the Americans. This year’s Olympic squad features several familiar faces: Ten competed in Sochi, and six of those also settled for silver in Vancouver in 2010. While that Olympic history isn’t something the U.S. squad necessarily enjoys reliving, in many ways, those games define the American team just as much they do the Canadians. Asked this week about the relevance of 2014, Amanda Kessel, the United States’ 26-year-old forward who’s playing in her second Winter Games, said, “Tough to say. Kind of put that in our past at this point. We can’t go back and play that game again.”
While that pain might linger for some, the Americans do not seem bothered one bit by their most recent loss to Canada. They outshot their rival 45-23 in last week’s loss, and players say they were just a couple of bounces away from winning.
“I think we left the locker room feeling pretty good about it,” said forward Monique Lamoureux-Morando, another American trying to add gold to her collection of Olympic silvers.
Noora Raty is the goalie for Finland, hailed by many as perhaps the tournament’s top net-minder. She has seen plenty of both teams, faced far more shots than she probably would like to remember. The Canadians, she says, play a superior team game, are always prepared and have a well-established system that’s tough to beat. The United States, on the other hand, might have a better collection of players this time around.
“I think they’re the most skilled in the world,” she said of the Americans. “I mean, they have four lines that could play on any other team.”
The United States is coming off its best game of this tournament, a 5-0 drubbing of Raty’s Finland team Monday. U.S. Coach Robb Stauber knows his team play cleaner and take better advantage of scoring opportunities, but at this point, he knows it’s just time to drop the puck.
“To be perfectly frank, there’s not anything new that we’re going to throw at our players now,” he said.
The American squad has spent four years talking about the Olympics in the future tense. Every game and every practice has been pointed to one thing: finally beating Canada for gold. On Thursday morning in PyeongChang, they can’t re-write history but they certainly can turn the page on their own.
“The losses have taught me a lot about who I am as a person, who we are as a team,” Knight said. “I keep pinching myself. This is my third time going to a gold medal games — a lot of our third times. That’s a dream come true, a huge opportunity. To represent our country the way that we have, I really hope we get tangible success at the end of this journey.”
Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.
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