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You certainly don’t expect to run into Coleman Young in Sochi.
But there was Hayley Wickenheiser of Team Canada quoting the long-ago Mayor of Detroit, the late Coleman Young:
“Courage is just one step ahead of fear.”
It was an unusual choice of words to follow a surprising 3-1 Canadian victory over Switzerland in the women’s hockey semi-final. Surprising in that the Swiss stayed with the defending Olympic champions and even outscored them for nearly 48 minutes of a 60-minute game. The Swiss were unable to erase Canada’s early three-goal lead, but proved very able at erasing the black mark that had again settled over the women’s game following the United States 6-1 defeat of Sweden in the earlier semi-final.
It all made for a fascinating dynamic in Shayba Arena, the grumbling and Twitter world condemning women’s hockey’s lack of competition as the dominating Americans outshot the Swedes 70-9. So lopsided was the game that the crowd cheered wildly whenever the Swedish players so much as neared centre ice. The cheering was meant to be enthusiastic, but often came across as sarcastic.
A few hours later, the chatter was all about the courageous and plucky play of the very young Swiss as they played their hearts out – no heart bigger than goaltender Florence Schelling – and put at least a little fear into the Canadians.
The Canadians won on two goals by Natalie Spooner and one by Melodie Daoust. The Swiss lost, obviously, but the play of Schelling and the speed of 20-year-old Phoebe Stanz and 15-year-old Alina Muller won the crowd over. The Swiss gradually gained the courage to attack rather than merely defend and, in the second period, they scored when Jessica Lutz hammered a puck past Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados on a goalmouth scramble.
The entire Swiss team dancing on the bench had to be seen to be believed.
“I’m very proud to be disappointed,” said Swiss coach Rene Kammerer. “I’m disappointed we lose – but, hey, it’s Canada.”
“Losing 3-1 is amazing,” said Schelling. “It’s a great outcome for us.”
“It was closer than we wanted it to be,” said Wickenheiser.
“That’s hockey,” added linemate Meghan Agosta, “sometimes you run into a hot goaltender.”
But it was more than just a hot goaltender. The Swiss were pesky and resilient, and may, in fact, have done the Canadians a favour by challenging them so. The Americans, on the other hand, could have learned nothing from their match against Sweden apart from staying awake for 60 minutes.
Canada and the United States will now meet in the gold medal match Thursday for the fourth time in the five Olympics that have held a women’s hockey tournament. The Americans won the first gold in Nagano in 1998, Canada the next three including 2010 at home in Vancouver.
“It’s definitely a hot ticket,” said American forward Hilary Knight.
Following the U.S. victory, some of the American players were suggesting that Canada could be had, that the Canadian defence was at times suspect and could be exploited.
“I’m not going to bite,” Canadian coach Kevin Dineen said when asked to comment on what some perceived to be light “trash” talk from the Americans.
“Let’s not do that song and dance. Let’s play the game.”
Both teams knew that, barring a miracle or disaster, they would be meeting in the gold medal match. The two powerhouses are far ahead of the rest of women’s hockey world and are themselves getting stronger, which is why the play of the youthful Swiss can be held up as a promising sign for future competition.
The Americans won the last World Championship, held in Ottawa, and defeated the Canadians four straight times in exhibition play as Team Canada worked through a rocky late 2013 – new coach in Dineen, new captain with Caroline Ouellette taking over from Wickenheiser – but the Canadians played well earlier in the preliminary round of this tournament to defeat their arch rivals.
There are 11 players on Team U.S.A. who lost to Canada in Vancouver and they intend to have their redemption here in Sochi.
“It’s something that’s motivated us for the last four years,” said feisty forward Monique Lamoureaux.
“From the moment the buzzer went in Vancouver,” added Team U.S.A. veteran Julie Chu, “we have prepared for this.”
Twice in 2013 exhibition matches the American women and Canadian women fought, something that is not tolerated in Olympic hockey and something that, given the importance of the game, is not at all expected on Thursday night.
But it will be, as all Canadian-American women’s hockey matches are, hard fought and slightly bitter.
“I think ‘intense’ is probably a better word than ‘hatred,’” Knight said.
“It’s definitely going to be a hot ticket.”
“Everything’s in step,” said a confident Dineen. “Now we’re there.”
“It comes down to one game, anything can happen,” added Agosta. “We’re ready. It’s going to be a battle.
“There’s no doubt in my mind it’s going to be us.”
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