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SOCHI, Russia – Amanda Kessel relished the opportunity her American women’s ice hockey team has earned at the Sochi Games. On Thursday night, they’ll play for Olympic gold; but they’ll also get another chance to finally vanquish their rivals to the north.
“I have a little sour taste in my mouth here,” said Kessel about Team Canada. “I’d like another crack at them.”
Their second meeting of the tournament – Canada won in preliminaries, 3-2 – was inevitable; despite the women’s tournament being more competitive than in previous Olympics, these are the titans of their sport. Canada has won 19 consecutive Olympic contests, collecting three straight gold medals – including wins over the U.S. in Salt Lake City and Vancouver.
It’s the greatest rivalry in international hockey, no matter the gender of the participants. The competition is fierce. The animosity real, manifesting in line brawls between the teams that gain thousands of views on YouTube.
“It's going to be a battle. It always is when we play against them. But we've been training for this all year and we are prepared,” said Meghan Agosta of Team Canada. “It doesn't matter what happened when we beat them in the preliminary round."
“It doesn’t matter” … it’s an often-repeated mantra from both teams leading up to their gold medal game.
“It doesn't matter that we lost to them in the preliminary round. We have played them eight times in six months. We beat them four times before we got to the Olympics, but none of that matters,” said USA captain Meghan Duggan.
Is there anything to be learned in the lead-up to this game about each other?
“We know their tendencies. They know ours. There aren’t any surprises. We can watch video on them. But we’ve watched a lot of video the last couple of years,” said U.S. winger Monique Lamoureux.
That said, the teams are in different places than they were in 2010. The Americans entered the Sochi tournament as prohibitive favorites, thanks in part to the emergence of Kessel and speedy Kendall Coyne on their top scoring line. But they were held scoreless against Canada in Round 1.
“We need to really get our forecheck going. All three of us have good speed. If we’re not going to use it, it’s a waste,” said Kessel.
The Canadians, meanwhile overcame adversity off the ice to advance to the gold medal game for the fifth time in five Olympics.
Dan Church was their coach in December, until he expectedly stepped down. Hockey Canada scrambled and found an unlikely replacement: Kevin Dineen, former NHL standout and recently deposed coach of the Florida Panthers.
Why choose the women’s team?
"For one, I got fired, so that opens up some real possibilities for myself,” he said, drawing laughter.
Dineen said the key for the gold medal game is to rely on the veteran players that have been the backbone during that adversity.
“You always rely on what your makeup is and for us we have a strong veteran presence and we have people that have been there before,” he said.
Players like Caroline Ouellette, a 3-time gold medal winner for Canada. She was part of a veteran leadership group that kept the team together when Church abruptly resigned.
"We've wanted this moment for such a long time,” she said. “We've faced some adversity and some moments were hard, but it's all been worth it for this moment to play for the gold medal."
It’s a moment both teams knew was inevitable. It’s a moment drenched in rivalry, marinated in consequence. It’s the culmination of four years of battling one another for supremacy in their sport.
But it is, in the end, a single moment, with gold on the line.
“We won't worry about what has gone on before,” said Agosta. “It's time to focus on one game and the gold medal."
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