It’s not that Megan Bozek has anything against Canada. It’s just that when the former Gophers defenseman is in uniform for the U.S. women’s hockey team, nothing makes her see red like a maple leaf on the opponent’s sweater. “You know that on that day,’’ she said, “you’re trying to draw blood in the nicest way possible.’’
Bozek smiled when she said that during training camp in Blaine earlier this month. But as the 2014 Winter Olympics approach, any remaining niceties have evaporated from one of the biggest grudge matches in sports. The U.S. and Canada — who between them have won every Olympic gold medal and every world championship in women’s hockey history — have engaged in large-scale brawls in two of their past five games, including a 10-player melee on Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D.
The two rivals will play twice more before the Olympics, on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center and Monday in Toronto. With only 43 days to go until the puck drops in Sochi, Russia, the U.S. recently has gained the upper hand, ending a three-game losing streak in the series with a 5-1 victory in Calgary on Dec. 12 and following that with a 4-1 win in Grand Forks.
The recent fights have drawn more attention to a rivalry already rich with high-intensity, high-stakes showdowns. While U.S. coach Katey Stone emphasized that she does not condone fighting, she does not view the dust-ups as an indication that the bad blood is boiling over. Neither do her players, who relish the rush that runs through every game between the two countries.
“Some people think, when they watch it in person, that it’s actually a full-checking hockey game,’’ said U.S. forward Julie Chu, 31, expected to make her fourth Olympic team when the final roster is announced Wednesday. “We embrace that.
“I think there’s always that little bit of ‘rrrr’ when you get there and you know you’re about to step on the ice against one of your greatest rivals. I love it.’’
The U.S. team’s “Bring On The World’’ tour included six games against Canada — three on each side of the border — as well as one more at the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y. The American team has been training in the Boston area since early September and also has played boys’ teams from New England as part of its Olympic preparation.
After winning the first Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan, the Americans lost to Canada in the gold medal games in 2002 and 2010 and finished with bronze in 2006. When Canada won the gold 2-0 in 2010 on home soil in Vancouver, the players celebrated on the ice with cigars, beer and champagne.
Though many considered that ungracious, Chu said the Americans were less upset with the party than they were with the loss. Since then, they have turned the tables on Canada in two world championships, defeating it in the gold medal game in 2011 and 2013. The U.S. has won four of the past five world titles, beating Canada in the finals each time.
As they prepare for the Olympics, both teams need top-flight competition — the kind they can get only from each other. They typically play several times in the months leading up to the Winter Games, and that familiarity can breed contempt. In the Oct. 12 game in Burlington, Vt., American forward Monique Lamoureux made contact with Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados with about three minutes left in a 3-2 Canada victory, sparking a fight that involved 10 players and led to four major penalties for roughing.
In the game at Grand Forks, Canada’s Brianne Jenner made a run at American defenseman Josephine Pucci. Jocelyne Lamoureux responded by body-checking Jenner, and the ensuing fight with nine seconds left resulted in five fighting majors for each team. The teams also fought in 2009 during preparations for the 2010 Olympics.
Canadian forward Hayley Wickenheiser said the October fight was “fun.’’ Stone said it was unnecessary, though she also insisted after the Grand Forks fight that the Americans “will not be pushed around.’’ She noted that managing emotions is a big part of her duties when the teams play because feelings run high no matter what is at stake.
“We’re going to be physical and stick up for our teammates when needed,’’ said U.S. defenseman Anne Schleper, a former Gopher from St. Cloud. “But I don’t think [the rivalry] is too close to the edge. It’s always been like this, physical and intense and competitive.’’
Chu said she thinks the ill feelings do not carry over off the ice as much as they did in the past because the growth of women’s college hockey has created opportunities for Americans and Canadians to play together in college. Several of Chu’s teammates said they are friends with Canadian players and do not harbor hatred toward them.
On Saturday, though, those friendships will be put on ice for 60 minutes. “When you get into that gameday mentality versus your archrivals, you have no friends,’’ Bozek said. “You’re not here to make friends; you’re here to win a hockey game.’’