Canadian, American women set to collide
But any North American hockey fan with a rivalry jones can tune in Thursday night (6:30 p.m. EST, MSNBC, CTV, V) when the two countries' women's teams play for the gold medal at Canada Hockey Place.
Expect it to be loud.
"We will definitely feel the energy and support from Canada's fans," said Jennifer Botterill, one of four teammates who is playing in her fourth Olympics and shooting for a third straight gold medal. "It will be up to us to embrace the opportunity."
But with the opportunity comes the dreaded companion of pressure. Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, one of those four-time Olympians, said she has discussed it with the Canada men's team players during the last week.
"We talk about the pressure openly and it's a burden we share together, a positive one," Wickenheiser said. "We sort of joke about it. It's an honor and definitely a responsibility."
America's Angela Ruggiero, a Harper Woods, Mich., native, said she is looking forward to the noise, whether it eminates from friend or foe.
"There's nothing better as an athlete – let alone a hockey player – than to play in a building of this magnitude, to have all the fans screaming," said Ruggiero, who is one of two Americans to play in all four Olympic women's hockey tournaments. "A lot of us were able to see the men win (vs. Canada last Sunday), just, if anything, to get a sense of what the atmosphere is going to be like – hostile, fans chanting against you. And that's OK because I think our team thrives off of that."
Both teams have certainly thrived in this tournament. In the semifinals, the USA steamrolled Sweden 9-1, beating the goalie, Kim Martin, who ended their Olympic tournament prematurely in 2006. Canada clamped Finland 5-0 to get to Thursday.
The gold-medal contenders both feature turbo-charged offenses. Second-time Olympian Meghan Agosta, who dazzles with speed and stick work, has 9 goals and 5 assists to lead all scorers. Teammate Jayna Hefford, also of the four-time Canadian Olympian ilk, has 5 goals and 7 assists, while Americans Jenny Potter (6 goals) and Natalie Darwitz (4 goals) each have 11 points here in Vancouver to lead their squad.
Even so, there is a contrast in how USA and Canada play.
"I think USA plays with more speed and is quicker," said Swedish coach Peter Erlander. "Canada is stronger and doesn't take too many risks. They play two very different styles of hockey. And it's hard to play both teams. Probably, it will be enjoyable to see both teams play each other."
All the veteran leadership for both nations—Potter is Team USA's other four-timer — appreciates the younger, upcoming players. Monique Lamoureux, 20, is one of those skaters to watch; she notched a hat trick against Sweden and, along with twin sister Jocelyne, brings some serious hop to the U.S. side.
Among the Canadians, Wickenheiser praised first-time Olympian Haley Irwin for her even-keel presence while scoring four goals so far at these 2010 Games. The Canada captain also quickly singled out defender Catherine Ward, who is plus-13 so far.
Team USA will start Jessie Vetter in goal, while Canada coach Melody Davidson is keeping it a mystery as to who will get the nod. The choice appears to between veteran Kim St. Pierre and Shannon Szabados, 23 and considered Canada's goalie of the future.
The question is, does that future start Thursday?
"I am not announcing anything," said Davidson at her Wednesday press conference. "I've made a decision. We still have a few things we need to iron out. We just want to make sure it's right for our players and our team."
OK, so ride the wave of intrigue, see who gets in the crease to start the game against Team USA.
Perhaps even more importantly, there is serious drama in the familiarity of these two teams. Canada has won seven of 10 games with the U.S. this season, though Davidson said those games "mean nothing now." In the "Big Wins This Century" category, mark down Team USA for the 2008 and 2009 two world championships and Canada for both the gold medal in 2006 and the 2002 gold, beating the U.S. on home soil in Salt Lake City.
The two teams are even familiar enough to be pals. Well, sort of.
"Both of us have friends on both teams," said Vetter. "We're friends, definitely, off the ice but not going out on the ice. It gets chippy, oh yeah. Any opportunity you play a team it will get chippy – and even more so with Canada because it's two great teams going against each other. And as I said, we're competitive people and we want that puck and we want to win that game."
And Thursday, it will be for a gold medal.