The women’s hockey contest between Team USA and Canada tonight at the Arena is technically an exhibition game. Don’t be fooled.
These teams are considered the best in the world. The word rivalry is sometimes overused in sports, but it’s fitting when the U.S. and Canada meet on ice.
“It’s intense, competitive and it’s not always full of smiling faces at each other,” said U.S. forward Julie Chu, a veteran of two Olympics. “It’s a fun rivalry in that it’s been cultivated since 1990 when the first national team was made. Since then, it’s only escalated.”
Canada won the last meeting 3-1 on Oct. 5 in Victoria, British Columbia, but the U.S. beat the Canadians twice at the Hockey Canada Cup in early September in Vancouver, B.C. There was a brief scuffle, a rarity in women’s hockey, with 3.5 seconds left in the most recent contest.
“It shows how much we cared for the game and the win,” Canada goaltender Kim St. Pierre told the Victoria Times.
There’s no lack of investment from Team USA, which has claimed the last two world championships, an event typically dominated by Canada. The teams will continue to square off leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics where most expect they’ll collide for the gold medal. The U.S. captured gold in 1998 while Canada won in 2002 and 2006.
“I think we bring out the best in each other,” forward Natalie Darwitz said. “Seeing Canada 10 times, it has its pros and cons. Is it too much? Is it not enough? For us, 10 opportunities to face Canada is what we want.”
Team USA settled for bronze at the 2006 Olympics, but the roster has changed considerably, with just six Olympic veterans remaining. The team has 23 players, but will carry 21 at the Olympics.
“I love it, it’s my favorite game in the world,” said defenseman Angela Ruggiero, who joins Jenny Potter as Team USA’s only three-time Olympians. “You might play Sweden or Finland and it’s a competitive game, but there’s nothing like playing Canada, especially given the history of the two programs.
“The biggest difference is Canada has a lot of veterans. We have a lot more rookies, which is interesting because we’ve been able to dominate with a bunch of rookies. We have a lot of young energy, a lot of youth, a lot of confidence.”
Both teams are trying to build momentum for the Vancouver Games.
“We’re trying to get a mental edge, a physical edge,” Ruggiero said “We want to take something from this game.”
The game carries added significance for Team USA’s Karen Thatcher. She grew up on the East Coast before moving to Blaine, Wash., four years ago.
“We always took family vacations out here and I always wanted to move here and I always loved it here,” she said. “I actually feel a little more of a connection than if I was born here, because I chose to live here.”
One of the few negatives was the scarcity of hockey rinks.
“It was a little different experience having to track down rinks instead of having one around the corner,” Thatcher said. “I crossed the border a lot and played around Vancouver.”
The game will be televised on the NHL Network with Cammi Granato, captain of the 1998 U.S. team, serving as an analyst. … Team USA played in Spokane prior to the 2002 Olympics, knocking off China. The game drew 9,137 fans, at the time the third-largest crowd to watch a women’s hockey game in the U.S. “We had an incredible crowd here and we’re looking forward to that same atmosphere and getting a chance to highlight our sport,” Chu said.