Imagine if the Stanley Cup or the World Series or the Super Bowl was only played once every four years. No playoffs, no best-of-seven. Just one game, winner-take-all, and then it’s over.
Now imagine that we already knew, with virtual certainty, which teams would be in that game. Those two teams could spend four years training, practicing, perfecting their rosters and strategies, and playing each other all over the world in preparation for that one game that would decide everything. Four long years, just to get to 60 short minutes that would settle everything.
Oh, and did we mention that the two teams seem to hate each other?
We’re two weeks away from watching that game. Welcome to Canada vs. the USA, and the world of women’s Olympic hockey.
First Things First
Women’s hockey is not men’s hockey.
Yes, that’s a stupefyingly obvious thing to point out, but some people still seem to have trouble with it. Despite the overwhelming similarities to men’s hockey, there are some key differences. Bodychecking is illegal. The skating is noticeably slower. You won’t see any 100 mph slap shots. Players with long hair have actual long hair, not ratty mullets.
Two things can be slightly different and still both be fun. You can live with that, right? Good, because the tournament starts Saturday. Let’s get to the good stuff.
A Brief History of the U.S.-Canada Rivalry
Women have been playing organized hockey in North America since the 19th century, with the first game reportedly played in Ottawa in the 1890s. But we didn’t get an internationally sanctioned tournament until 1990, with the inaugural IIHF World Women’s Championship. Canada and the U.S. met in the gold-medal game, with Canada winning 5-2. They met in the next two championships as well, in 1992 and 1994, both of which were won by Canada by a combined score of 14-3. But the U.S. started quickly closing the gap, and the 1997 final was closer; Canada needed overtime to win 4-3.
The sport debuted at the Nagano Olympics in 1998, where Team USA won gold by finally beating Canada in what was considered an upset. Canada won the next five major tournaments, including the 2002 Olympics, before the U.S. reclaimed the world title in 2005. Since then, the U.S. has won four of six world championships, while Canada won gold at both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics.
If you’re counting, that’s 19 consecutive major tournaments that have been won by either Canada or the U.S., with the two teams facing each other in 18 of those finals. (The one exception: The 2006 Olympics, when Sweden shocked the U.S. in a shootout during the semifinal.) The two teams also play each other in occasional secondary tournaments and tune-up games, including seven games at the end of last year, which saw Canada win the first three before the U.S. finished with four consecutive wins.