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How USA and Canada’s women’s hockey teams became the Winter Olympics’ best rivalry

There’s no Olympic rivalry with more hatred and heartbreak than the one between these two neighboring countries.

Ice Hockey - Winter Olympics Day 6 - United States v Canada Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

To have a rivalry in sports is to have a history like no other, and the United States and Canada have quite a history. On Wednesday, Team USA and Canada will play for women’s Olympic hockey gold, a matchup we’ve seen five times now over the last six Winter Olympics that have included the sport.

With that familiarity breeds contempt, and not just of the nationalistic kind. These two teams do not like one another, and it’s apparent every time they step out on the ice to play against each other. A rivalry like that doesn’t just build overnight, it’s cultivated throughout years of controversy, close calls, and heartbreaking losses.

This rivalry works because it’s between the two undisputed best teams in women’s hockey. Yet, to understand why Wednesday’s gold medal match between the United States in Canada means so much to these teams, we need to dig a bit deeper into how this all started in the first place.

Team USA shocked Canada to win the first Olympic women’s hockey gold

The 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano were the first to feature women’s hockey as a sport. While the men had been playing in the Olympics since 1920, women have had professional leagues on and off for the last 100 years but have only just gotten the sport in the Olympics 20 years ago.

Heading into Nagano, Canada was the favorite to win gold, as the team won every competition in the year leading up to the event. The Americans, meanwhile, had come in second behind Canada in the games prior to the Olympics. Team USA did shock Canada in the final preliminary match of the tournament, as the Americans won 7-4 to hand Canada its only loss of the round.

The gold medal match, however, was the real surprise. The United States never trailed Canada in the game, as Gretchen Ulion scored the first goal on a power play in the second period. Shelley Looney got the eventual historic game winner for Team USA, as while Canada tried to mount a comeback, they fell short 3-1 at the final buzzer.

Since 1998, however, Canada has dominated the Olympic field

The Canadians exacted their revenge four years later in 2002 on Team USA’s home turf in Salt Lake City. After both teams came into the final unbeaten, with the Canadians still the favorites, Canada wrestled away gold from Team USA 3-2 and has not looked back since.

This was one of the first real instances when Hayley Wickenheiser became known, and feared, by fans of Team USA. Wickenheiser scored in the gold medal match, and contributed 10 points in five games for the Canadians that year. All time, Wickenheiser has 51 points in 26 Olympic games.

Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette, another key cog in the Canadian scoring machine, returned in 2006 to usher in the wave of Canadian women’s hockey dominance. The United States didn’t even have a chance to upset Canada for the gold in Turin as Team USA fell to Finland 3-2 in a shootout in the semifinal match. That was the first, and only, time the U.S. did not face Canada in any capacity in the women’s hockey tournament.

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver were a perfect setup for Team USA to knock out the Canadians on their ice like their rivals did eight years prior. Both teams came into the final gold medal match, once again, undefeated in the preliminary rounds. This time, however, the United States would not get a goal past Canada once in the gold medal match with a 2-0 defeat. You can watch the highlights of the game on YouTube with no commentators, if you’re prepared to see sad Americans.

Goaltender Shannon Szabados made 28 saves in the shutout for Team Canada to win their third straight gold as they, yet again, held the United States to just one championship at the Winter Olympics.

“The Comeback”

The 2014 Winter Olympics was a special kind of pain for Team USA. In Sochi, Canada and the U.S. were able to face each other in the preliminaries for the first time since 1998 due to the new seeding format.

Canada took the preliminary match 3-2 as the rivalry was thrust into the new age. The team touted incredible players like Natalie Spooner, Meghan Agosta, and Wickenheiser, alongside Marie-Philip Poulin, who made waves in this tournament with six points in five games as the team’s captain.

For the Americans, Hilary Knight, Meghan Duggan, Kelli Stack, and Alex Carpenter were set to be the answers to the Canadians’ dream team. In the gold medal match, they almost were, as Duggan and Carpenter gave the United States a 2-0 lead heading into the final five minutes of the third period.

A pair of goals, with one from none other than Poulin herself, in the game’s dying minutes were enough to send the game to overtime. Poulin finished the comeback, and the American heartbreak, with the 3-2 overtime goal to lift Canada to their fourth straight gold.

Many will likely remember the botched empty net attempt for Team USA as the puck hit the goal post instead of the back of the net with a minute and a half remaining. That empty netter would have likely sealed the win for the United States, as Canada was still trailing by a goal.

Others will remember the potentially questionable officiating that put the Canadians on a power play to end it, or how both teams had legitimate gripes about their own penalties taken in the final moments of the game.

That game took years off of the lives of every sports fan watching it and crushed the spirits of Americans over a 20 minute span in one fell swoop.

The World Championships tell a different story

It’s been a tale of two distinct eras in the modern USA vs. Canada rivalry. In 1990, the IIHF Women’s World Championships were introduced into the fold as the premier international tournament of women’s hockey. Heading into 2007, the Canadians had won all but one of their 10 appearances in the tournament, with the United States taking gold in 2005.

Since 2008, however, the United States has won all but one of the last eight tournaments, with Canada’s last gold coming in 2012. Knight was the latest to give the United States the victory over Canada in the 2017 World Championship, in overtime no less.

Outside of the Olympics, the U.S. has dominated the rivalry in recent years. However, nothing means more than an Olympic gold medal, and it’s the one piece of hardware this team is missing.

Another fated meeting in Pyeongchang

With both teams advancing out of the semifinals, we are set for another United States vs. Canada gold medal match. Canada took the 2-1 victory in the preliminary tune-up, but the Americans as a whole looked to dominate most of the game despite the loss.

Wednesday night’s game will be just another high-stakes Olympic final between these two talented countries, and one that will likely pave the way for the future of this rivalry for years to come.

The first Winter Olympics and how Canada ruled men’s hockey