Canadian sledge hockey captain Greg Westlake says it isn’t personal.
His dislike for the United States has nothing to do with past results, grudges, politics or anything else for that matter.
It’s all about winning gold at the Paralympics.
The two teams are set to face off at Shayba Arena on Thursday night in one of two semi-finals after Russia upset the U.S. 2-1 in both teams’ final round-robin game to secure first in Pool B.
“I don’t not like the Americans because of their geographical location,” said Westlake. “I don’t like them right now because they’re in the way. I want gold medals and there’s only one way to get there and we have to go through them. I don’t really hate any team, I just really want to win. Any team that’s between me and my goal, they’re just in the way.”
Canada finished the round-robin portion of the tournament with three victories in Pool A, combining to outscore opponents 15-1 while allowing a meagre 18 shots against.
However those numbers are a bit misleading. Canada romped 10-1 over Sweden and beat Norway 4-0, but had to hang on late to defeat the Czech Republic 1-0 on Tuesday.
“The whole week’s a learning process,” said Westlake. “I think we’ve made enough mistakes and had enough close calls that if we can’t peak next game, then when are we going to peak?”
The host Russians, who have played in front of boisterous crowds that rival the atmosphere of an NHL playoff game, meet Norway in Thursday’s other semi-final.
After winning gold at the 2006 Paralympics, Canada finished a disappointing fourth in 2010 when the U.S. topped the podium. The team has had an infusion of youth in the last four years that has paid dividends, including a pair of gold-medal victories over the Americans at last year’s world championship and world sledge hockey challenge.
“We always have good games against them,” said Canadian head coach Mike Mondin. “We’re going to have to be prepared and we’re going to have to be focused.”
Canadian assistant captain Brad Bowden said he expects the Americans to come out firing on Thursday night.
“Especially after what happened with Russia, they’re going to be hungry against us and try and make a statement,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Canada won gold in both men’s and women’s hockey at last month’s Olympics and the sledge team is two games away from clinching the triple crown that no country has ever captured.
The Canadian players knew they would probably have to go through the U.S. to accomplish their goal in Sochi. They just expected it to be one round later.
“We’re two of the better teams,” said Westlake. “We’re ranked 1-2 right now and someone’s got to go.”