VANCOUVER, British Columbia – In speaking with the players ahead of the Canada vs. U.S. grudge match on Sunday, it became clear that one side is a bit passionate about its feelings for the other.
"Absolutely," said defenseman Jack Johnson(notes) of the Los Angeles Kings, who offered to fly out his three Team USA teammates to see his appearance in the Opening Ceremony but didn't extend the same courtesy to Team Canada's Drew Doughty(notes), also of the Kings.
"It was a small plane. There was only room for a few," said Johnson, who hasn't spoken to Doughty in Vancouver.
"I hate them," said Ryan Kesler(notes), U.S. center and a player for the Vancouver Canucks. "It's a big rivalry. I wouldn't say I hate them; you have respect for the other team. Canadians expect to win the gold, and anything less is not good enough. It's going to be fun to try and knock them off."
Fun, but emotionally draining. Think about what's on the line when the teams meet: medal round seeding and a bye; bragging rights among teammates, players, fans, and families; defending home ice or seeking to embarrass the home team on it; avenging old losses, settling old scores, and, for the Americans, seeking a level of respect in the eyes of the hockey world that only a win against the Canadians can provide.
They're fueled by that underdog desire for validation. If there's hatred in either locker room, as Kesler indicated, it's in the U.S. room.
"It's a big word. I don't hate people," said Team Canada goalie Martin Brodeur(notes) with a chuckle. "I think it's hockey. They're going to want to take something away from us, and we have to have that attitude to be ready for it and match what they're going to bring and then surpass it.
"If we know that they're hating us, we need to hate back, I guess."
There's an interesting generational gap between players when it comes to this rivalry.
In speaking to Brodeur, Chris Pronger(notes) and Scott Niedermayer(notes), one senses that the older players on Team Canada are approaching this game differently than the younger ones. There's an "eyes on the prize" mentality, in which players who have Stanley Cup rings or Olympic hardware already are focused on the big picture – and beyond what is still essentially a preliminary-round game, no matter the euphoria surrounding it.
You also get a sense that the Americans are more a nuisance than objects of scorn. The Canadians grew up hating the Russians. That's still the benchmark rivalry for Canada; against the U.S., their focus is more on avoiding embarrassment.
Which is why I think the Americans have the emotional advantage in this game.
Some of the U.S. players wouldn't go as far as using the word "hate," but that's the word for it. These NHL players have always been uninvited guests playing Canada's game, whether it's in the Upper Midwest or the Northeast like Buffalo, where U.S. star Patrick Kane(notes) grew up.
"I remember going up to Toronto, playing with a half Canadian and half American team. The arguments were always about who was better. Or making fun of each other's accents," he said.
This angst built up through the years, and the catharsis could come Sunday. Again: This isn't to say Team Canada is taking the Americans lightly. It isn't. This is to say there's a difference between fear of embarrassment and a searing desire for substantiation as a hockey culture.
The Canadians know that a loss to the U.S. will sting and sting badly; but the sting disappears the moment they win gold. The Americans would also like to win gold ... but beating Canada in Vancouver, with the world watching, is its own medal, no matter how much higher the team is aiming.
How does this translate into game play? It could mean the Canadians are walking into a buzz saw. It could mean the Americans will play with too much emotion and the confident veterans on Team Canada make them pay for those mistakes. (Here's where the Canada power play, such a disappointment in these Olympics, could shine.)
It'll be emotional for both teams. But is there hatred in the Canadian room for the upstart Americans?
He added: "The biggest thing is that it's not the individuals over there.
"It's the fact that we don't want to lose. More than anything."