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Monday, August 23, 2004
Updated: August 24, 6:55 AM ET
U.S.-Canadian rivalry grows

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Mike Richter, who has been there in the trenches enough times to know whereof he speaks, fondly refers to them as hockey's border wars.

Games that have for more than a decade sent the proud hockey nation to the north into equal parts joyous celebration and calamitous grief; games that have given its imposing neighbor to the south a taste of what it's like to be a hockey power.

Hal Gill
Exhibition of strength: Hal Gill, left, checks Team Canada's Ryan Smyth.

Games that transcend a score; games whose outcome somehow are imbued with grander ideas like national values and self-esteem.

"These are border wars. Neighbors always have these unique rivalries like siblings do," Richter said. "The two countries, both the good and the bad, the political, the cultural, everything always gets thrown in there."

The battle lines were re-drawn Monday night as the Americans upended Canada 3-1 in the first of three World Cup of Hockey exhibition games for each team. The two rivals will play again Wednesday in Ottawa, and it is no quirk of scheduling that when the curtain rises on the North American portion of the tournament next Monday in Montreal that the showcase matchup will be Canada and the United States.

In spite of the presence of seven legitimate contenders in this eight-team gathering of the best hockey players in the world, from the top on down, from Gary Bettman on through the television broadcasters and advertisers and certainly North American fans, many are looking to the drama of a Canada-U.S. final in Toronto on Sept. 14.

Even those connected to the two teams quietly hope for a rematch of the emotional 1996 final in which the Americans won their first championship at a "best-of" hockey competition.

"If it could be us in the final, that would be great," U.S. forward Craig Conroy said. "You couldn't ask for a better scenario for us and for them."

Conroy, who assisted on the American's first goal by Bill Guerin Monday, has a unique perspective on the clash of hockey neighbors, having been adopted with the rest of the Calgary Flames by the entire nation as the team marched to the Stanley Cup final this spring.

"It wasn't just Calgary, it was all of Canada," he said.

Conroy, who signed with the Los Angeles Kings this offseason, recalled going to his doctor's office in Calgary during the World Junior championship game between Canada and the United States in December; everyone was gathered around a television set in the office.

"I didn't cheer. I was just sitting there. You'd think everybody in Canada stopped to watch that game," Conroy said.

During the 2002 Olympics, Conroy decorated his Calgary home with American flags and his neighbors responded by re-decorating his lawn with Canadian paraphernalia.

Over time, there has been "less of a rivalry with Canada-Russia and more of an emphasis on Canada-U.S. hockey, not only at our level, but of course the world juniors," added Wayne Gretzky who first began playing internationally in 1977 and who was the architect of the gold-medal winning Canadian team in Salt Lake City and this World Cup of Hockey team.

"It's good that there is that emotion and that rivalry. It seems to always be pretty good hockey when the two teams play."

Monday's exhibition game, which came after just three days of practice, had a surprising level of emotion and more than a few solid body checks. There was even some pushing and shoving involving NHL teammates. Detroit Red Wings Chris Chelios and Kirk Maltby had words, and at one point, Canadian netminder Martin Brodeur hooked New Jersey teammate Scott Gomez around the shoulder.

"When you're on the ice, you want to beat them," Canadian defenseman Scott Niedermayer said of the Americans. "There's a bit of history there and that helps."

"Obviously some of the mystique and the image of the Eastern European teams as being stylistically different and perhaps talent-wise unique, some of that has been lost," said Tim Taylor, longtime hockey coach at Yale who took over as head coach of the U.S. team at the last Canada Cup in 1991 when head coach Bob Johnson took ill.

"I think the U.S.-Canada rivalry has just evolved because since the mid- or early 1990s we can brag we're the two best hockey nations in the world."

There have been terrific international games and series that haven't included Canada or the United States.

The Finns and the Swedes will always bring out the best and worst in each other. Likewise, the Slovaks and the Czechs carry decades of history onto the ice each time they meet. But there is something about the dynamic between Canada and the United States that sets it apart.

"Canada is and continues to be a great world power in hockey," so all teams get up to the play the best, Richter said.

The same dynamic comes into play when the U.S. is concerned although for different, broader reasons, Richter added. Because the U.S. is a world political power, those feelings of wanting to knock them off their pedestal spill into the sporting arena.

"It always seems to creep into sports even though it's not always fair," Richter said.

Those external feelings about America, the nation, are magnified for Canada, which is in some ways consumed with the notion of maintaining its unique identity in the face of the powerful cultural, political and economic presence of the U.S.

"We took it upon ourselves in Canada to be better," after the 1996 World Cup, Brodeur said. "It was a shock to us that we fell back a little bit.

"To be on top of the hockey world, it's easy to get there, it's to stay there that's the toughest part. I think we're in a situation here, we're there."

The fact that the Americans are now a legitimate hockey power, in fact stole the first World Cup of Hockey championship on Canadian soil, brings that more keenly into focus for Canadians.

"It was incredibly special. And in some ways I'm glad it was in Canada. It didn't mean as much to the citizens of the United States But it did mean everything to us in our locker room," Richter said. "Every game we had in America was well-received. But all of Canada seemed to be watching it. There's just so much emotion involved there.

"The fact that it got down to those two games in Montreal. You never wanted it to end. Those guys from that team are friends forever."

Sometimes the rivalry has clouded judgment on both sides.

The angst was palpable throughout the Canadian hockey world after the Americans won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and when the prospect of a rematch rolled around at the 1998 Olympics, the first time NHLers were allowed to play in the tournament, both Canada and the United States prepared as though there could be only one outcome, a Canada-United States gold medal game.

Both teams gave away speed and finesse in building tougher, grittier lineups. Both went home without medals, the U.S. further embarrassing itself with its frat house busting up of a room in the athletes' village after being eliminated.

This World Cup of Hockey tournament will feature more NHL-style play given that the crucial games will all be played in NHL rinks, but once again the Canadians and Americans seem to have built themselves with the notion that it will once again be the two neighbors left standing.

"I think everybody likes to see Canada-USA. I think that's how we're built right now," assistant general manager of Team USA Don Waddell said.

"There's no question that everyone wants to see the final game in Toronto be Canada-U.S.," added Hall of Fame defenseman and television analyst Dennis Potvin.

There are other quality teams, he added, "but those teams may be the strongest two teams in the tournament."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.