Canada wins, but nothing's settled

Posted: February 14, 2014

SOCHI - They are natural geographic and competitive rivals.

But they are unnaturally bitter ones, too.

And it was the bitterness as much as the competitiveness that made Wednesday's United States-Canada women's hockey game a must-see Olympic event.

Shayba Arena was packed with 7,000 spectators who buzzed excitedly from long before the late-afternoon game began until well after it ended in a 3-2 Canadian victory.

Chris Chelios was there, in undoubtedly the worst seat a hockey Hall of Famer has ever occupied. So were familiar NHL faces Mike Babcock, Claude Julien, Keith Jones, and the brilliantly named Lindy Ruff.

Four fans who are staying on an ocean liner docked in the Black Sea came from Alaska to see it. People wrapped in Canadian and American flags attended. So did many curious Russians, including one who for reasons probably best left unknown kept screaming a phrase that translated to "Yes, pass it along, girls!"

The piped-in music was loud. The organ was tuned. The cheerleaders - yes there are Olympic cheerleaders - were peppy. The shout-off between "CA-NA-DA" and "U-S-A" was intense.

And when American Kelli Stack and Canada's 35-year-old Hayley Wickenheiser bent low for the opening faceoff, the noise was as scary as the look on the face of ex-Flyer Kevin Dineen, the Canadian coach.

"There was such great energy in the building," U.S. forward Julie Chu said.

If an essentially meaningless first-round matchup can stir up that kind of atmosphere, what happens next week, when the sport's twin powers almost certainly will meet again in a gold-medal match?

U.S.-Canada is a wonderful aberration, so wonderful that its popularity has managed to transcend the sport's.

Let's face it, regular old women's hockey has fewer followers than your grandfather's Twitter account. Yet somehow, amid all that disinterest, the American and Canadian women have carved out one of the best rivalries in sports.

"It's our Stanley Cup," said Canada's goalie, Charline Labonte.

That was evident Wednesday when U.S. defenseman Megan Bozek repeatedly, and forcefully, shoved swarming Canadians away from goaltender Jessie Vetter; when a linesman had to separate Canada's snarling Meaghan Mikkelson from feisty U.S. forward Meghan Duggan; and during many other testy and physical encounters.

Familiarity breeds contempt, and these contemptuous rivals played each other six times leading up to these Sochi Games. The series' final tally was 4-2-2 - four U.S. victories, two Canadian victories, and two brawls.

Frankly, it's that last statistic that made Wednesday's game so unique and compelling.

After all, Chelios, the ex-Chicago tough guy, and the pug-faced Ruff didn't come to applaud the solid back-checking.

One day their pair of pre-Olympic punchfests might be viewed as women's hockey's breakthrough moments. Because all of a sudden, the sport has crossover appeal.

No one intended it to happen that way back in the 1990s when women's hockey took root. Fighting wasn't on the founders' radar. Heck, they banned bodychecking, a prohibition that remains in force.

There are rules against fighting, too, just as there are in the men's game. But who back then ever thought they'd be necessary?

Even then, the bodycheck ban made little sense. It appeared to be a vestige of the Victorian-era belief that women are too frail and sweet-natured to be subjected to the harshness of the world.

Perhaps the height of that ridiculous thinking came in 1865 when Mary Surratt was hanged as one of the convicted coconspirators in the Lincoln assassination.

The hanging took place on a hot July day. And as they led Surratt to the gallows, where they were about to kill her, a gentleman held an umbrella over her doomed head to shield her from the sun.

The U.S.-Canada game made it clear they don't need any umbrellas. They play fast, intense, and - as much as the rules allow - physical hockey.

If women want to bodycheck, what's the problem? They're flesh and blood, not porcelain.

And if they want to fight, they have every right to be as stupid as their male hockey counterparts.

When the Canadian and American women twice previously brawled like, well, male hockey players, no bones were broken, no sensibilities damaged.

"I think a lot of people were like, 'I can't believe you guys got in a fight in women's hockey,' " said the Harvard-educated Chu. "The reality is both teams are strong and passionate."

And, she might have mentioned, they really don't like each other.

There wasn't any fighting in Canada's 3-2 win. But that didn't make it any less entertaining.

As if their probable medal-round meeting needed any more fuel, this game produced some. Canada's deciding goal was extremely controversial.

As Canadians and Americans scrummed in front of Vetter early in the third period, a whistle could be heard above the din. The Americans backed off, but not the cagey Wickenheiser. In her sixth Olympics now - five as a hockey player, one as a softball player - the veteran pushed a rebound past Vetter.

A subsequent review upheld the call, and Canada had a 2-1 lead.

"We thought we heard a whistle before the puck went in the net," said Duggan, the U.S. captain. "They celebrated before the light went on, and the ref made the decision."

Meghan Agosta - curiously, there were a few players whose name wasn't some form of Meghan - scored her second goal - on her 27th birthday, no less - a short while later, rendering a late U.S. goal moot.

The loss stung the Americans, and some stormed past reporters in the mixed-zone afterward. But it didn't hurt as much as a second one in Sochi would.

Both teams have byes into Monday's semifinals. Canada, by virtue of its win, will get the lower-seeded of the two quarterfinal survivors.

So the United States will have time to mull over yet another Olympic loss to Canada.

"Sure we want to beat them," Chu said. "They're our biggest rival. It's intense. It's competitive. The games are fast and physical. This might have been a preliminary game, but there's no doubt about it, we wanted to win."

No punches were thrown. More important for the Americans, no knockout blows were delivered.

"We're just glad that's not the gold-medal game," Chu said.

And as they left Shayba Arena and walked into the warm Russian night, so were all those fans who plan to return when the United States and Canada next meet.

"Good hockey," Chelios said as he rose from his distant seat. "Good, physical hockey."


ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz

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