GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA – The heart eventually mends, but the memory never goes away. Never, ever.
Athletes don’t detach themselves from soul-stabbing losses, and certainly not ones such as the U.S. women’s hockey team experienced four years ago in Sochi when they had a gold medal ripped from their fingers in the cruelest way imaginable.
They came so close to Olympic gold that they could hear the first few notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then, whoa Canada.
An epic collapse in the final minutes left them with another silver and four agonizing years before their next turn on this stage against that opponent, their archrival.
“The heartbreak is like having a bad relationship and it going sour,” U.S. forward Hilary Knight said. “That’s what it is, right? It’s always going to be there. It’s part of your fabric.”
Rivalries remain a fabric woven into sports, and U.S. vs. Canada represents entertainment value of the highest degree.
In women’s international hockey, there are two titans and everyone else. The gap between Canada and Team USA and the world is wider than the Pacific.
The gold medal matchup could have been written in permanent marker before the Olympic tournament began. So here we are again.
Lucky us, because this rivalry never gets old. Only better and more intense.
“A battle for the ages, as usual,” Canada’s Brianne Jenner said.
Women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998 at the Nagano Games. Team USA won the inaugural tournament. Canada has claimed gold ever since, four in a row.
They have met for gold five of the six Olympics. This will be the third consecutive time.
Great rivalries require multiple clashes in championship settings, memorable games, heartbreaking losses, mutual respect, mutual animosity and enough competitive tension that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
This rivalry checks every box.
“It’s awesome on the world’s biggest stage for everybody to watch two powerhouses go at it,” Canada coach Laura Schuler said.
They bring out the best in each other even when a gold medal is not at stake. They battled in the preliminary round of this tournament as if the loser was being sent home. Canada won a thriller 2-1 that ended with a scrum at the final horn. Players had to be separated.
Canada owns a 24-game winning streak in the Olympics, which began with their loss to the U.S. in the final game in Nagano 20 years ago.
“I was probably in the crib watching that game,” said 20-year-old U.S. goaltender Maddie Rooney.
Many of her teammates were toddlers the last time Team USA defeated Canada in the Olympics. All of her teammates know about the last loss to Canada with gold at stake.
“That was a fairy-tale ending,” Jenner said.
That, of course, depends on one’s perspective.
“Right after that, we looked ourselves in the mirror and figured out what we can take away from it,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said. “But that’s a long time ago in our eyes. This is a new team.”
Smart strategy. Don’t dwell on a nightmare because, frankly, what good does that do? They can’t change the outcome.
Team USA has changed coaches, roster makeup and style of play since that loss. This is a different team in many ways. Better? Maybe, but they have to prove it by dethroning their nemesis at the Olympics, not just in the world championships, where the Americans have won eight of the past 10 titles.
“Our mission has been clear: We focus on ourselves, regardless of our opponent,” Duggan said.
They can’t escape questions about Canada, though. They are intertwined because of their dominance. They show up at the Olympics and immediately hear about anticipation of another gold medal showdown.
“We’re looking to do something extraordinary,” Knight said.
That word defines this rivalry. It’s the two best in the world almost always at their best when they meet. Extraordinary moments, too, as we witnessed four years ago in Sochi.
Team USA won’t ever forget that one, but here’s another chance to experience their own fairy tale this time.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org