Heading into Feb. 14, the Canadian and American national women’s hockey team had met 140 times. Their first meeting came all the way back in 1987 in North York, Ont., where Canada battled the U.S. at the 1987 World Women’s Hockey Tournament, the first major world tournament for the women’s game. Since then, after numerous encounters at the IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship, the 4 Nations Cups and Olympic tournaments, the rivalry hasn’t lost its heat — and the players haven’t lost their passion.
Canada has always been a powerhouse in women’s hockey. They’ve been regarded as number one in the world for much of the sports' existence. But this sentiment no longer holds true. In recent years, with the Americans surging to an eight-game win streak over Canada, Team USA has risen to the top in women's hockey. In these last eight outings, which started at the 2015 World Championship, these two teams have met each other in the gold medal match of each major international tournament. Every time, Canada has come home with silver, not quite meeting the expectations set by themselves nor the country they play for.
And the players are well aware of it. Using February's exhibition Rivalry Series as their first step, the players are looking to push themselves and their game further to rewrite the narrative surrounding women’s hockey.
“The past World Championships, the past Olympics, [the Americans] have always come out on top,” said Canadian forward Natalie Spooner before the first game of the series in London. “I think that we need to play with that chip on our shoulder and kind of that underdog mentality that [says] we're here to prove something, and we need to win some games moving forward here to set the tone.”
Team Canada head coach Perry Pearn, who was brought into the Canadian women’s program in 2017, is no stranger to the rivalry, as he experienced firsthand Canada’s loss in the gold medal game at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, as well as their loss to Team USA in the 2018 4 Nations Cup in November. However, his outlook on the position of the national women’s team is far from pessimistic, and many of his players carry this same mindset.
“I don't think as a group we're fooling ourselves and saying we're first. I think right now we're chasing, and I think that's actually a good place to be in in terms of creating a mindset where we have to get better," said Pearn.
Laura Stacey, who was a part of the 2018 Canadian Olympic team, also added, “We had some really tough feelings after the Olympics and after 4 Nations, and that's something you never want to feel again. So I think having that taste in our mouth, and knowing that we haven't kind of led at the world stage recently — I think it just further ignites that fire within us, and pushes us, and motivates us to get back to the top.”
Nevertheless, the Americans won’t be letting the redemption storyline complete itself without putting up a fight. Having won their last eight contests, their confidence was certainly at an all-time high heading into the Rivalry Series. But with only twelve players returning from that 4 Nations team due to scheduling conflicts with players competing in the American collegiate ranks, their roster sought the same impact on their Canadian rivals in an exhibition series that would be dictated by passion and highly physical play from some of the world's best athletes.
Forward Hilary Knight, who has become a mainstay of Team USA’s recent success, understood and appreciated those aspects of the rivalry.
“I think that's just what makes our rivalry the most beautiful rivalry in sport," she said. "We bring the level of compete, and on the other side [of that] it's the respect level: we respect our opponent that much that we want to gut it out, night in [and] night out.”
Even though London has hosted three Hockey Canada events before, it has never hosted the national women's team, nor has it ever garnered this much attention for the women's side of the game. But the Rivalry Series brought a local flair, with London native Katelyn Gosling and St. Thomas native Brittany Howard both donning the maple leaf in the series.
The 25-year old Gosling suited up for the second time with Team Canada, previously participating in the 2018 4 Nations Cup. As a young defender, Gosling played for the Provincial Women's Hockey League's London Devilettes for three seasons before joining the Western Mustangs from 2011 to 2016. Now in her third season of professional hockey with the Calgary Inferno of the CWHL, Gosling has established herself as one of Western University's most successful athletic alumna.
For Gosling, getting to play in her hometown was a “dream come true. She emphasized the importance of playing in front of many young female hockey players in attendance, notably those of the Devilettes program that bought close to 1,000 tickets for the game.
“It's [was] very special. Growing up, I would have loved to watch a few games here. I think we’re definitely fortunate to have that [support] and just to remember that I was once there in their shoes, so it's exciting to be here,” said Gosling.
Howard, like Gosling, also played for the Devilettes program for four seasons before crossing the border to play for Robert Morris University in Moon Township, Pennsylvania for six years, winning the College Hockey America Player of the Year Award in 2017. Now in her rookie season with the Toronto Furies of the CWHL, Howard also appreciated being able to play in front of a raucous partisan hometown crowd.
Even though it was Howard’s first time playing for Team Canada, she had no qualms about adjusting her game to the level of play. Howard has quickly proven that her success in the CHA with Robert Morris wasn’t just a product of the quality of competition, as she currently sits third in scoring for the Furies, behind Olympians and Rivalry Series teammates Spooner and Sarah Nurse.
For the Rivalry Series, her personal adjustments to playing with some of the best athletes in the world came down to the speed of the game, something she emphasized after participating in two full practices with the squad prior to the series opener.
“You got to be fast, definitely fast. It's a high tempo game out there with some good contact, so you definitely got to play fast, keep your head up and stay focused.”
Preparing for a game of this magnitude was certainly a daunting mental task. For a Canadian team that hadn't won a game against the Americans in eight attempts, there were staggering expectations for them to redeem their reputation and spot at the top of the women's hockey game. However, because the Rivalry Series was only a a series of exhibition games, their focus was on development and the future, as they looked to fine tune their systems before heading to the World Championship, which Pearn views as the hardest event in the women's game to win.
Starting in net for the Canadians was Emerance Maschmeyer, who was left off of the Olympic roster in 2018. Since then, she’s been with the national team in the summer at training camp, and she played at the 4 Nations Cup in November, where she relieved veteran netminder Shannon Szabados in the gold medal match and turned away all shots against as the clock ticked down in their 5–2 loss against the USA. This season, Maschmeyer has been outstanding as the starter for Les Canadiennes de Montreal of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, where she currently holds the highest save percentage among all goalies in the league. She credits her recent success to a mentality shift after being cut from the Olympics, learning to enjoy the moment more and not thinking too far ahead.
In preparing for the Rivalry Series, her focus was set on using practices to emulate the fast tempo of the game while she acquainted herself with teammates old and new.
“We're a very skilled team, fast, really good shots, so I think [hopefully] the quality of practice will translate over to the game,” she says. “I know that it'll be a tough, a big battle out there, a big rivalry, so the best way to kind of mock that pace is to mock it in practice.”
To bring her mindset up to speed with the compete level that the series required, Canadian forward Laura Stacey wasn't looking to change much in her routine, hoping that her teammates would do the same.
“For me, it's about keeping it the same, keeping that routine similar to every other game. I think a lot of the times we focus and change things just because we're playing the U.S., but everything we've done to get ourselves here is exactly what we need to bring tonight, and we don't necessarily need to change who we are, or what we do. We just need to bring everything we have. I think we all bring a lot of different things to the table, and if we can all bring the best of what we each have, we're going to be tough to stop.”
Game day in London brought a sold-out crowd of over 9,000 to Budweiser Gardens. Included in the crowd were local female hockey players from the surrounding areas, including London, Dorchester, Brantford and Cambridge. The Western Mustangs women’s hockey team was also in attendance to cheer on Gosling, who left the program in 2016 and played with a few skaters still active on the Mustangs roster. Additionally, in attendance were Gosling's cousins, Nicole and Julia, who recently won gold with Team Canada at the 2019 IIHF Under-18 Women’s World Championship.
As the arena slowly filled up, the crowd became a sea of red and white spirited voices, there to show their support for the 23 Canadian women on the ice about to play against their greatest rival. The puck dropped, and what commenced was a highly skilled yet physical affair — nothing but reputations and pride on the line.
The first period saw the Canadians on top of their game, intercepting passes and keeping possession of the puck. However, the game remained scoreless, even though the Americans' strong forechecking led to Canada defending for extended periods of the game. At the end of the first, the crowd became riled up as they were treated to their first true taste of the rivalry. Halli Krzyzaniak and Team USA's Megan Bozek both ended up in the penalty box serving matching roughing penalties.
Tempers continued to flare in the second frame, as a pileup in front of American net-minder Alex Rigsby occurred when Canadian forward Jillian Saulnier drove hard to the net. After the Canadians’ lackluster power play unit was unable to capitalize on a penalty by Brianna Decker, the Americans became the first to spill blood as Knight potted the first, and ultimately only, goal of the game off of a lucky bounce into an open net.
Knight commented after the game, “We had a great defensive presence up top, and then we had a lot of girls skating in front of the net, and so it was literally just a puck that bounced into my direction.”
The goal quickly deflated the crowd going into the last period of the game, and the play of the Canadian skaters reflected their mood. It wasn’t until the last 10 minutes of the game that they started to pressure the Americans, but their efforts came too late, as Team USA won the first match of the Rivalry Series 1–0.
After the game, Pearn was quick to voice his optimism about his team’s play, drawing attention, again, to the developmental aspect of the match.
“At the end of the day, you've got to analyze the whole picture, and if we look at where we were at the end of 4 Nations, how we played in the gold medal game there, this is a gigantic step forward for us,” he said.
Veteran forward Rebecca Johnston echoed Pearn’s sentiments, adding, “I think we definitely took a step in the right direction, we're using our speed, getting the puck low and getting shots on net. It was a good stepping stone for us for the next two games.”
The Canadians put up 33 shots to USA’s 21, which was a hopeful indicator of Canada’s upcoming success. With both teams unable to capitalize on their own two powerplays, it was indicative not only of their strong penalty-killing units, but also of the importance of needing to score with the player-advantage. Because, as players on both sides noted, the game could have gone either way, especially with Canada’s offensive push at the end, and having the extra marker would have certainly bolstered either team.
In terms of the crowd and the support for the game, captain Marie-Philip Poulin was pleasantly surprised by the swell of fans in the arena.
“It's amazing, to be honest, when you hear the crowd going so loud you can't even hear the coach talk in between the breaks. I think it just shows the support. It was great tonight in London, and seeing the red and white in the stands tonight was awesome.”
Even though the Canadians weren’t able to pull out a win in London, the team didn’t seem to regard the game as a setback. Instead, the loss propelled them even further, as they went on to win the next two games of the series by scores of 4-3 and 2-0, effectively taking the inaugural Rivalry Series. Poulin and Jamie Lee Rattray led the team in the second game with a goal and an assist each, while Brianne Jenner notched a power play goal on Shannon Szabados’ perfect night, going 38 for 38 in net for Canada.
After facing off against their fiercest rivals for the 143rd time in history, Canada’s national women’s hockey team had finally restored some confidence and pride in themselves — and in their fans. The series was indeed a stepping stone for them to regain momentum within women’s hockey and rebuild their reputation as the top powerhouse within the sport.
However, the rivalry will now be put on hold as the players rejoin their respective professional teams’ own playoff races across the continent, mingling with and playing with many of the very same Americans they faced off against in this series. The level of respect these players share for each other transcends the hostility that is required of the rivalry, and all animosity will be brushed aside for the goal of winning a CWHL Clarkson Cup or National Women's Hockey League Isobel Cup. But when the World Championship comes along in April, the two countries will renew their rivalry again. And as Hilary Knight emphasized at the end of the series, it’ll be like they “don’t even know each other.”