SOCHI, RUSSIA – They all heard the same thing. Or more accurately, the same sound.
“There was a whistle on the ice, definitely,” Team USA forward Hilary Knight said. “I was right there on the ice. I heard it.”
“I thought there was a whistle, clearly,” teammate Amanda Kessel said.
“I did hear the whistle blow before the puck went in,” U.S. coach Katey Stone said.
Unfortunately for the U.S. women’s hockey team, the referees heard and felt otherwise. The result was a go-ahead goal that helped Team Canada defeat its archenemy 3-2 Wednesday in an Olympic preliminary game that, with any luck, merely served as the preview for the gold medal game.
Round 2 would be a real treat.
“We love playing them,” Team USA captain Meghan Duggan said. “We get jacked up for these games.”
Team Canada clearly feels the same way. The world’s two best women’s hockey teams renewed their heated — or is it hated? — rivalry in a game that will be remembered for a questionable goal but should be recognized for what it truly was: an intense, physical, fast-paced showcase of two teams that don’t particularly like one another.
“We want women’s hockey to be the best that it can be, and I think the two of us get a chance to bring that out in each other,” U.S. forward Julie Chu said.
Their latest clash turned early in the third period with Team USA leading 1-0. Canada scored twice in less than two minutes, the second coming on an odd sequence. U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter tried to smother a shot by Hayley Wickenheiser with her body, but the puck squirted underneath her and into the goal.
Team USA argued that a whistle blew before the puck crossed the goal line. The referee reviewed the play and upheld the goal.
“They said they had audio, they said they had video and that was their final call,” said Duggan, who pleaded the team’s case to the referee. “Not much you can do.”
Meghan Agosta gave Canada a two-goal cushion on a breakaway with 5:05 remaining. St. Cloud native Anne Schleper scored with 1:05 left to make the final seconds interesting, but Canada milked the clock the rest of the way.
Team USA seemed annoyed but not necessarily irate about that whistle, probably because a rematch seems inevitable in the championship game. The teams enter the medal round as the top two seeds.
Canada is the three-time defending Olympic champion. The U.S. won the inaugural gold medal for women’s hockey in 1998. A gold medal by any country other than those two would qualify as historic.
Both teams praised the growth and development of other countries in this tournament, and maybe that’s true. But the competition is just different when these two are on the ice.
Their skill level, speed and toughness separate them from the pack. And they always seem to bring out the best in each other.
Their games are intense and typically close. They pound each other into the boards and shove each other after the whistle. They even had a couple of fights in pre-Olympic games.
Chu was asked if hatred is too strong a word to describe their rivalry.
“Some of my teammates might,” she said. “The only thing you can say is it’s an intense passion. When people come out and watch us in person, it’s unbelievable how many people are surprised by how fast the game is, how physical it is, how every shift every single player on that ice is trying to win that puck.”
Count me in that group.
Team Canada coach Kevin Dineen played and coached in the NHL. He knows what a true rivalry looks and feels like. He listed a few intense rivalries that he’s familiar with in explaining his current one.
“I think this one is the real deal,” he said. “You always hear, ‘Oh, they don’t like each other.’ I don’t buy that. It’s a mutual respect. I think sometimes to be really good you have to have a good foil. Certainly the U.S. for us is a great measuring stick. I’m just hoping we can keep moving forward and there might be another snapshot in the very near future.”
One more time for a gold medal? Count me in.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org