U.S., Canada ... best of frenemies
It's Texas versus Oklahoma, only with a much longer border.
It's Yankees versus Red Sox, but with three accents.
It's UConn versus Tennessee in women's basketball with the coaches in the background.
It's Packers versus Bears with none of the money, Maple Leafs versus Canadians with much of the hatred, and Heat versus Pacers with a lot more history.
But because it lacks things such as ratings and attendance, and because it comes to light every four years, the frenemy combat between the U.S. and Canadian women's hockey teams doesn't get the exposure or recognition it deserves. The feud is sui generis, one of a kind because the two teams share the same love (hockey) and the same hate (losing).
Put it this way:
They like each other.
And they don't like each other.
As Team USA captain Meghan Duggan says, "It's pride, pure pride," and that's what makes the competition even richer. The men's Olympic hockey competition is a hobby played by millionaires who will resume their quests for the Stanley Cup. A gold medal is the women's Holy Grail.
Their contempt is bred by the familiarity of their small world: When Canada and the United States played in the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid in early November, 23 members of Team Canada had played for college teams south of the border, while 10 of the Americans had played in the Canadian Women's Hockey League. They're in this thing -- women's hockey -- together, but that doesn't stop them from saluting different flags, singing different anthems, trading different punches.
Just hours before the two teams faced each other on Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., Canada's veteran forward, Jayna Hefford, said, "What makes the rivalry so special is that we know each other so well. Here we both are, staying at the Canad Inn, smiling at each other in the elevators. But tonight, friendship will be forgotten."
You might have seen the clips of the game on "SportsCenter." No, not of the goals scored in the United States' 4-1 victory, but of Jocelyne Lamoureux igniting a brawl in the final seconds that resulted in 10 fighting majors and a penalty box jammed like a clown car with six U.S. players and five Canadians. Talk about a close game.
When I was in the Canadian league for Brampton, I lived in a house with a bunch of Canadian players, and we were really close ... That said, I still hate Canada. I’m a Red Sox fan, so I hate losing to the Yankees, but not nearly as much as losing to Canada.Former 2006 U.S. Olympian Jamie Hagerman Phinney
They've already faced each other seven times, with three wins for Canada, followed by four straight victories for the U.S., and two brawls started by a Lamoureux twin (Monique bumped Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados back on Oct. 12 in Burlington, Vt., touching off a fight that got thousands of page views on YouTube.)
Canadian and American women have been playing hockey against one another at least since 1916, when a tournament was held in Cleveland. But it wasn't until the IOC voted to include women's hockey in the 1998 Winter Olympics that the rivalry blossomed, nourished by the popularity of the sport. Team USA won that first gold medal, upsetting Canada 3-1 in the final in Nagano, but the Canadians have won all subsequent golds: 3-2 against the U.S. in the 2002 Salt Lake City Games; 4-1 over Sweden, which had upset the Americans in the semis of the 2006 Torino Games; and 2-0 over the U.S. in Vancouver in 2010. Of the 16 world championships played since 1990, Canada has won 11 and the U.S. five, including the 2013 tournament in Ottawa.
Along the way, the Canadians have accused the Americans of literally stomping on the Canadian flag, the Americans have charged the Canadians with running up scores, and women's hockey has gotten more and more physical. (Unfortunately, the officials have to control the game short-handed: The men get four zebras, the women only three.)
If the two sides have a common enemy, it is not another country, but the impression that they have monopolized the sport. IOC president Jacques Rogge warned as much back in 2010. But since then, USA Hockey and Hockey Canada have been proactive in training and lifting their (hopefully) future competition. When the U.S. team was upset by Finland 3-1 at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, the women saw that the outreach was working. "It was a little weird," said veteran USA forward Julie Chu. "We didn't like losing, but we did like that the gap was closing."
Nonetheless, Canada and the U.S. are still the co-favorites in Sochi. The Canadians have been fighting through a crisis of confidence brought on by the sudden resignation of head coach Dave Church, who has been replaced by recently fired Florida Panthers coach Kevin Dineen. And the United States, under Harvard coach Katey Stone, has made significant strides since its losses in the Four Nations Cup to Canada and Finland.
The rivalry is such that each player remembers her first USA-Canada clash.
"Ontario, 2006," said U.S. forward Hilary Knight. "It was such a different level of intensity."
"Winnipeg, 2007," said Duggan. "There were 15,000 people, and we lost 3-2 in a shootout."
"The 1997 world championships in Kitchener," said Hefford, 36. "Hated them then, hate them now. Of course, I don't know the U.S. players as well as I used to. Not my generation."
"Four Nations Cup in Salt Lake City in 2001," said Chu. "For some reason, I knocked down Cassie Campbell, and everybody from Canada was asking, 'Who was that new girl who took out our captain?'"
Chu has also played for the Montreal Stars in the CWHL, so she has friends in red-and-white maple leaf uniforms. Jocelyne Larocque of Canada and Megan Bozek of the U.S. played defense for two seasons together at the University of Minnesota. Over the summer, Knight, who went to Wisconsin, and Canadian goalie Genevieve Lacasse, who played at Providence, worked out together in Knight's hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho. "We're friends and we push each other," said Knight. "But we also have a little side bet going."
Former 2006 U.S. Olympian Jamie Hagerman Phinney, who coaches at the Hotchkiss School and will be going to Sochi as the athlete services coordinator for the coastal Olympic village, also knows how deep the rivalry runs.
"One of my best friends in the world is Jennifer Botterill," she says. "We played together at Harvard and against me in Torino. When I was in the Canadian league for Brampton, I lived in a house with a bunch of Canadian players, and we were really close, even though I had to live in the basement.
"That said, I still hate Canada. I'm a Red Sox fan, so I hate losing to the Yankees, but not nearly as much as losing to Canada. The other day, a fellow coach took the ice with a stick wrapped in Canadian-flag hockey tape. She thought it was funny. I did not."
Once you've caught on to the breadth and depth of the two teams' enmity for one another, you can better understand what happened in Grand Forks. Toward the end of the game, Team Canada forward Brianne Jenner took a run at U.S. defender Josephine Pucci. So Jocelyne Lamoureux, who was protecting her University of North Dakota turf, nailed Jenner with an illegal body check into the boards. In an instant, the Lamoureux twins, Knight, Gigi Marvin and Kacey Bellamy were fighting Jenner, Larocque, Melodie Daoust, Meaghan Mikkelson and Vicki Bendus.
"I'm not a proponent of fighting in hockey," said Stone, "but I am a proponent of standing up for yourself. We will not be pushed around."
As Jocelyne Lamoureux was escorted to the penalty box, she heard the cheers of the young girls in the arena. She was once one of them, she said. "I remember thinking, 'This is where I want to be and this is what I want to do.' So if I can do that for someone else, and our team can be an inspiration for some of these little girls who came out here tonight, then that's pretty cool."
The lesson of the USA-Canada rivalry is not that fighting is good. It's that some things are worth fighting for. Things like team. And country.