The Globe and Mail
At the Sochi Olympics, there have been magnificent triumphs for Canadian athletes (moguls skier Alex Bilodeau, bobsledders Kaillie Humphries, Heather Moyse) and disappointments, too (Charles Hamelin’s crashes in short track speed skating). But nothing makes a Canadian’s heart race faster than a good old hockey game wrapped up in a red Maple Leaf.
Not only that, there was much at stake in Thursday’s game between the Canadian and the U.S. women.
Canada wanted to win more medals overall than it did at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The women’s hockey team was eager to shake off several stinging losses to the Americans, including one that happened the same day its coach, Dan Church, resigned, thus opening the door for Kevin Dineen.
Tossed into that mix was the fight for women’s hockey against International Olympic Committee types saying the sport hadn’t grown since it was added to the winter program in 1998. Every four years, the IOC argued, it’s usually the same thing – Canada vs. the U.S.
True, but that same thing has produced must-see encounters, including two recent lead-up games that included line brawls. That’s not the sort of thing you expect to see in women’s hockey, but it was a testimony to how much the two sides want to beat each other.
Canada vs. the U.S. has become a rivalry as monumental as anything in the men’s hockey tournament, and that includes Friday’s semi-final clash between Canada and the U.S.
In 1998, when the American women won hockey gold, they left their Canadian counterparts crushed and in tears. In 2002, the Canadians told stories about the Americans putting a Canadian flag on the floor of their dressing room so they could walk all over it. It was never proved, although it did spike the fever pitch between the two sides, helping Canada win its first gold. In Turin, the U.S. didn’t make it to the final. In Vancouver, it was back to more of the same in a good way; the teams gave all they could before Canada prevailed.
In many ways, Thursday’s clash was better than what had happened four years before in Vancouver.
This time, the millions of Canadians watching the women’s hockey final were taken on an emotional ride like never before. They saw the Canada team being chased all over the Sochi ice by an American team that was younger, faster, seemingly more determined.
And when Canada trailed 2-0 with less than four minutes remaining in regulation time, it looked as if the evening was lost.
Then came the moments that will live in Canadian sports history for years – generations, perhaps. One late goal. Another. An overtime winner on a four-on-three Canadian power play and suddenly there were the refuse-to-lose Canadians, surrounding and hugging Marie-Philip Poulin, the scorer of the Golden Goal for women’s hockey.
No other Canada-U.S. women’s hockey matchup has ever produced as much tension as Thursday’s did. None has been so dramatic. That Canada had to rally from behind, relying on heart as much as skill, spoke loudly to our national pride. It was a signature win, coming on the same day as Jennifer Jones took gold in curling, and it hit all the right notes for the singing of O Canada.
“It’s the best feeling ever,” Poulin said afterward. “It’s like a dream come true.”
At the Sochi Olympics, Canadians have cheered their medalists and supported those who have come close to the podium. Still, there has always been an emotional soft spot for hockey. As Canadian fans have been known to say: “As long as we win the gold in hockey, I’m okay with that.”
Things may soon change on the Olympic hockey front. The NHL isn’t sure about committing its players to 2018 and Pyeonchang, South Korea. Instead, Hockey Canada may have to ice a men’s team of players culled from various European leagues. That was how it once was before the NHLers were allowed. And if the NHLers stay in North America, then Canada’s best chance at hockey glory will be the women’s team.
Veteran Hayley Wickenheiser won’t be there. Jayna Hefford will have retired before 2018, too. A new core of players, including Poulin, will have picked up the mantle to make new moments worth remembering.
Just know they’ll be up against the U.S. in a game that always matters, to them and to all of us.