Women's Hockey – Man-Sized Rivalry

Could you imagine seeing two hated rivals battling it out for the Stanley Cup every year for the past 7 or 8 seasons? If it were possible, to see Toronto and Montreal, or Philly and the Rangers, or Edmonton and Calgary every May (or June) for so many consecutive years? Could you imagine how intense a rivalry those games would become? Well, for the past decade, one such rivalry that has been overshadowed and overlooked might finally be starting to gain the attention it deserves.The decade of the ’90’s saw the emergence of women’s hockey on a global scale. A pro league in Canada was created, the World Championships followed, and finally the sport gained recognition in the ’98 Olympics in Japan. Countries like Finland, Sweden, Japan, Russia, the United States and even China have programs for women’s hockey.

Canada has been the dominating country from the outset of the World Championships in 1990. In fact, Canada is the only country that can boast as being winners of the world title. Since it’s inception, Canada has won the world crown seven straight times, beating the same team in the finals every time.

Canada’s toughest opponent in women’s hockey comes from south of the border, the United States. However, until 1998 Canada had never lost a single game to the americans. That changed in Nagano.

With the international spotlight that is the Olympics focused on hockey in Japan, it was the underdog Team USA that won the gold in the single biggest game in women’s hockey history. A possible shift in power had begun.

Canada responded by winning the World Championships again every year since ’98 including the 2001 title played in Minnesota in August.

As both teams gear up for the 2002 games, it appears that the scales of power may have again shifted in favor of the american’s. The recent three game, “TSN Challenge”, series was a decisive three game sweep for USA.

The americans are led by Cammi Granato, at 30 years old, she is the eldest and most experienced player on the team. Other notable names include forwards Katie King, Shelley Looney and defender Karyn Bye. The US is a younger team than the Canadians, four of their players were born in the ’80’s, which comes through in their team speed. It’s an aggressive, hard working team that has been beating Canada at it’s own game.

Team Canada has many players who are “household” names in Canada. Geraldine Heaney, Cassie Campbell, Nancy Drolet, Danielle Goyette and Vicky Sonohara are all long time vets with the team. Hayley Wickenheiser made such an impact on the women’s team a couple season’s ago that Flyer GM, Bobby Clarke, invited her out to train in his team’s preseason camp. Sami-Jo Small and Kim St. Pierre are both excellent goaltenders whom Canada will be relying on in Salt Lake City. Canada’s squad is older and more experienced than the Americans is. There are four Canadians older than any of the Americans, and only one player was born after the ’70s.

Team USA has a five-game winning streak going against their rivals from Canada, but both team’s coaches know the real thing is stilll ahead. “They don’t give out medals in November,” said USA coach Ben Smith.

Canada’s coach, Danielle Sauvageau, said, “I’d rather win than lose, we’ve never lost five straight to the US, but, I’d rather lose eight in a row to them and win the one we want the most.”

Clearly all eyes are focused on the Olympics again. Asked why she felt the Americans have been so successful recently, Sauvageau replied, “They have the best power play in the world, they’ve been working on it for three years.”

“They’ve been living together for three years and we just started together in August, so I think they have better chemistry right now,” added Canadian goalie St. Pierre.

Team Canada just finalized it’s Olympic roster two weeks ago, while the americans have basically been together for the past few years. Up until now, the Canadian players have been concentrating on their individual goals of making the team. Now, the coaching staff hopes the team will refocus and gel in time for the games in February. This should be easier as half of the forwards come from one club team (Oval X-Treme), and half of the defensive units are from another club team (Beatrice Aeros).

“What I want is for us to play a perfect game three months from now,” said Sauvageau. Anything less than that may cost them the gold again. “Canada’s history is that we are not afraid of hard work.”

After a decade of butting heads, this is a rivalry that equals, or betters, most others in pro sports. Just because there is no bodychecking in women’s hockey doesn’t mean the players don’t play aggressively. When you play each other as often as these two teams do, there’s bound to be plenty of bumping and shoving going on. The lack of contact allows the players to skate more freely which opens up the game and creates a better flow. Quite often you will see the play go from one end of the rink to the other, and back again.

So take note this February to watch the ladies play the game too. You’ll be treated to a terrific game and I’m sure that anyone who is still a skeptic will be pleasantly surprised at how entertained you will be.

Guy Flaming

puckboy@hockeytraderumors.com