With Canada and the United States meeting Wednesday in preliminary play at the Olympic women’s hockey tournament, one has to wonder whether the two powerhouses will show all their cards in a game that isn’t for gold.
The new tournament format has the archrivals concluding the preliminary round against each other and giving the tournament another marquee game, in addition to the Feb. 20 final in Sochi, Russia.
The Canadians and Americans already have semi-final berths locked down after starting the tournament 2-0.
Both will take information out of Wednesday’s game to use in a possible rematch, so are the coaches tempted to keep anything under wraps?
“There’s no campfire over in the village but we’ve had that discussion before,” says Canadian head coach Kevin Dineen.
“What I can tell you is, we’re all in. We’re out to win every single game. That’s a big game for us. It’s a big game for them. I would have a hard time pulling things back if we get in certain situations. My feeling is our group is prepared. We know what we’re doing. You know what? This is what we do. Try to stop us.”
U.S. coach Katey Stone is taking a similar approach.
“It’s a very short tournament and what you’ve been working on over the course of the past couple of months is generally what you’re going to be. I really don’t think there will be a ton of secrets here,” says Stone.
“It’s a matter of getting your kids to play their best when their best is needed. I don’t think there’s that much to hide.”
The U.S. is 4-3 versus Canada since both countries centralized their players in one location last summer to begin preparations for Sochi. The Americans have beaten Canada four straight games, with their last a 3-2 decision Dec. 30 in Toronto.
The players also don’t sound like they’re going to save anything for later games in the tournament.
“I can’t speak for the coaches but I think as an athlete, it’s tough to hold anything back in a game like that,” says Canadian forward Jayna Hefford.
“You train four years to get here. We want to put our best game on the ice for ourselves, our fans. We’re trying to win that game. You want to win every single game. It’s confidence.
“What Kevin decides to do in terms of the technical side of the game, I can’t speak to, but in terms of the players, we’re going to be doing everything we can to get a win.”
Under this tournament format, the top four countries in the International Ice Hockey Federation’s world rankings are in one pool and the fifth to eighth are in the other. The countries with the best records in the top pool earn byes to the semifinals.
Finland and Switzerland are in the same pool as the North Americans. After 0-2 starts, they’ll square off Wednesday but both are headed to the quarter-finals to face the top two teams from the lower pool that includes host Russia, Germany, Sweden and Japan.
The change prevents the top two countries in the tournament from facing the bottom two and producing lopsided, embarrassing scores.
But for Canada and the U.S., the significance is they get to play the team that brings out the best in the other twice on their sport’s biggest stage.
“I think we’re all going to battle,” four-time U.S. Olympian Julie Chu says of Wednesday’s game. “Both teams are going to want to win that game. Our pride is on the line. We’re at the Olympic Games.”
The two countries have met in the final of every world championship, with Canada winning 10 of 15 but the Americans taking four of the last five.
Canada has won three Olympic gold medals in a row and beaten the U.S. for two of them. The only lull in their rivalry was in 2006 when the U.S. was upset by Sweden in the semi-final.
“It’s definitely intense. It’s always been that way,” says Canadian veteran Hayley Wickenheiser. “I think we all like it that way and there’s no love lost between the two teams. That makes if fun for people to watch and the best games you’re going to play as a hockey player.
“On both sides, we’ve tasted both victory and defeat. Most recently, we had the defeat in the world championships and I think there’s a lot of desire to want make it right this time in Sochi.”