Canada-U.S. women’s hockey rivalry about to heat up at Four Nations Cup

When it comes to rivalries in female sport, it doesn’t get any better than the women’s hockey rivalry between Canada and the United States of America.

It’s ultra-competitive.

It’s fierce.

And it’s here in Saskatoon this week at the Four Nations Cup.

“To me, it’s the best rivalry in women’s sports, or sports in general,” says Team USA forward Brianna Decker.

Former Team Canada head coach Melody Davidson, now head scout for the national team, puts the rivalry right up there.

“It’s a healthy one, but one of the best in sport, I believe,” she says.

Host Canada will play Team USA in Wednesday’s evening game at 7 p.m. at SaskTel Centre.

Since the debut of the Four Nations Cup in 1996, Canada’s national women’s team has won gold on 14 occasions (1996, 1998-02, 2004-07, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014) and brought home a silver medal eight times (1997, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2015-17) with the United States claiming gold those years and silver when Canada captured gold.

“Every game is like the gold-medal game,” says Team Canada captain Marie-Philip Poulin.

“It’s been there for a long time and it’s still growing.”

Wednesday’s match-up will be the first since the Olympics gold-medal final won by the United States so “a lot of emotions” are going to be involved, adds Poulin.

“You always want to win, especially against them. Every puck is going to be a battle.”

Davidson has been up close and personal for many years when it comes to battles with the Americans.

“It’s grown even more so because a lot of them play together regularly now (in the NCAA),” says Davidson. “That never used to happen and the rivalry maybe used to be a lot more bitter in the old days when they didn’t really know each other.

“Now they know each other, they play with each other so there’s pride on the line. Sometimes when there’s pride on the line, it’s even a tougher rivalry.”

Canada forward Natalie Spooner concurs.

“When we play against the Americans, they’re such a good team and they’re the team we want to play against and we always want to beat because we want to beat the best in the world,” says Spooner. “Obviously we’re looking forward to this, especially having that loss at the Olympics. We have a little chip on our shoulder and something to prove.”

Veteran Team Canada forward Rebecca Johnston says games against the Americans are always the best and most exciting. They’re always close games and a lot of fun.

“I love playing against them,” says Johnson. “There is so much talent on both teams. You never know what’s going to happen.”

Spooner says Wednesday’s game against the U.S. is “doubly exciting” because it’s the first game between them since the Olympics.

“Being the first Four Nations after the Olympics, we always have a lot of young girls so the excitement in the room is there and everyone is ready to get going here,” adds Spooner.

Team Canada head coach Perry Pearn says the Canada-U.S.A. rivalry is “absolutely unique” and “special.” He compares it to other sports rivalries like the Boston Red Sox-New York Yankee rivalry in baseball.

“If you look at how many people in Canada watched the gold-medal game at the last Olympics, obviously people in Canada care,” Pearn points out. “I think they care south of the border as well. It’s a tremendous rivalry and it’s great for the game and it’s the reason why the game has grown like it has.”

Team USA first-year head coach Bob Corkum is new to the rivalry. He will coach his very first Canada-U.S. tilt Wednesday.

“We know it’s intense,” he says. “It’s just the way it’s always been, always will be. We’re going to embrace it.”

Canada and the U.S. bring out the best of each other and Davidson says they are “constantly pushing each other’s envelope.”

“One day it’s this way; another day it’s another way. I think the athletes have become full-time. That’s their job and that’s what they do and that’s made them all better.”

Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada’s director of national women’s teams and two time Olympic gold medallist for Canada, says right now, the U.S. is the benchmark for women’s hockey.

“If you look at the last seven-eight years, we’ve been losing quite a bit to the Americans,” says Kingsbury. “We had our September camp and sat down with our group of athletes and really laid it on the line. To be honest, we’re chasing right now. Our team has a tremendous amount of determination and drive right now to regain the lead in the world and I can say, after our September camp, that our athletes are dialled in and they’re hungry and really wanting to get started here. To win the Four Nations Cup would be a really good first step to the season and for our new squad. We’re focused on Beijing 2020.”

dzary@postmedia.com

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