They say familiarity breeds contempt, and there are no two teams in all of sport more familiar with each other than the women’s hockey squads from Canada and the U.S.
The stark lack of parity in international women’s hockey constantly leaves these two to battle it out for supremacy, year after year, as if stranded together on an island of talent, locked in a relationship for which the word rivalry is far too weak.
Heading into this afternoon’s tournament finale at Canada Hockey Place, Team USA were the reigning world champions, Team Canada the defending Olympic gold-medallists. And it was Canada that prevailed today, by a score of 2-0.
The intensity of this reunion radiated from the ice into the stands, where the packed, frenzied, highly partisan crowd let loose with every turn in the play. And at this level, involving these two old enemies, the play is constantly turning, flowing back and forth.
It wasn’t until the later stages of the game that the Canadian attack began to gain the edge, as the Americans increasingly took risks in an attempt to break the shutout. Until then, the two groups of skaters were largely evenly matched. (The final shots on goal in the game were 29-28 Canada.)
Once Canadian forward Marie-Philip Poulin had put Canada ahead for good, scoring twice in three minutes in the first period, the difference in the match was Team Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados. It’s not that she got shelled during any sequence: her defense played solidly in front of her and was quick to turn the play up ice after most of the American chances. It’s that at critical points in each of the three periods, she made strong saves off shots taken in close, often flashing a catlike glove hand. You could sense that as the game wore on, she was getting into the heads of the American shooters.
The whole house stood with a minute to go in the game, shaking the building with a deafening sound to mark Canada’s third consecutive gold medal in women’s hockey.
Moments later, as the third-place Finnish team strode onto the ice to join the other two for the medal presentations, Szabados’s parents—their Team Canada jerseys sporting “Momma Szab” and “Pappa Szab” on the backs—appeared directly in front of me, waving frenetically at their daughter, trying to get her attention.
Up above, in a box in the rafters across the rink from me, members of the Canadian men’s hockey team, along with head coach Mike Babcock and associate coach Lindy Ruff, were also looking on. If they needed any reminder of the nature of their own goal at the Olympics, this one was as vivid as they come.
A FOOTNOTE: Just I was about to post this report on our Web site—a full hour after the medals were presented and at least half an hour after the building emptied out—most of Team Canada returned to the ice wearing their medals and carrying cans of beer. A few sported cigars. They sat at centre ice, joking and taking photos of one another. One of them climbed on the Zamboni parked nearby and began honking the horn as the others cheered. What better way to mark a huge hockey win?
Photo gallery: Women's ice hockey final, Canada vs. USA.