Physically, it won’t be as nasty as Muhammad Ali versus Joe Frazier (or even Colorado versus Detroit circa ’97), but the Playoff Round game between Canada and the United States Saturday afternoon at the MTS Centre will still be a full-on battle.
Ranked #1 and #2 respectively heading into the 2007 IIHF World Women’s Championship, Team Canada and Team USA were both dominant throughout their Preliminary Round games. While the Canadians skated circles around both Switzerland and Germany in two easy wins, the Americans likewise weren’t tested in victories over Kazakhstan and China. Don’t expect a blowout tonight, though, as these North American rivals meet in World Women’s action for the first time since the finals of the 2005 Worlds.
“It’ll be fun,” said Team USA Head Coach Mark Johnson after his team’s win over China Thursday night in Selkirk. “The girls don’t get an opportunity to play in front of big crowds at a lot of venues, so it’ll be a wonderful atmosphere. It’ll be a very competitive game. It’s going to be a very enjoyable experience for our players to participate.”
These two teams have established a rivalry that dates back to the first World Championship in 1990. Team Canada has dominated the matchup for the most part, beating the Americans in eight straight World Women’s Championship gold medal games from 19, but Team USA took down the red-and-white squad in 2005 to achieve its only first-place finish in tournament history.
There are also memories to draw upon from the Olympics, with both taking turns in the spotlight. The Americans drew first blood at the inaugural Olympic women’s hockey tournament in 1998 in Nagano, beating the Canadians 3-1 to win the gold medal. Playing on home ice in the 2002 Olympics in Utah, however, the Americans couldn’t defend their title as the hungry Canadians edged them 3-2 in the winner-takes-all meeting. Hayley Wickenheiser and company defended their title four years later at the 2006 Olympics in Torino, but they didn’t have to go through the Americans to do it. Team USA lost to Team Sweden in the semi-finals in a shootout, marking the first time that either the USA or Canada had been defeated by anyone other than each other in international competition. It didn’t affect Team Canada, though. They handed Sweden a 4-1 loss in the finals to win their second straight Olympic gold.
Natalie Darwitz, a 5-3 sparkplug for Team USA, has been playing for her country since 1998, and she is well aware of the rivalry that exists between the top two teams in women’s hockey. The Eagan, Minnesota native said that she and her teammates are ready for Team Canada.
“We’re pretty excited,” said Darwitz. “That’s going to be a whole new set of circumstances, just playing in front of their home crowd when no one’s on our side. But we’re excited obviously, and I like our chances right now. I like the way we are playing and moving the puck, and if we go down there and work hard and create some opportunities and make things happen, then I think we’ll be all right. Hopefully we can get a good win out of them.”
Four Nations Cup tournaments have also factored their way into the Canada-USA equation, as some intense games have helped fuel this rivalry. Team Canada has won gold in nine of the past 11 tournaments, including last November’s Four Nations Cup in Kitchener, Ontario. Canada’s only two silver medal finishes came when it lost to the Americans. The Americans finished second to Canada eight times, but they did win in 19.
It’s a new year and there are new faces on both teams right now at the Worlds. Team USA Coach Johnson said that he is glad they will face the Canadians on Saturday because his team is just starting to come together as a group.
“Each game you play and every practice they get to know each other a little better, and they’ve been together almost two weeks now, so it’s starting to look like a team,” said Johnson. “Obviously having a little success in the early part of the tournament helps that development and that growth and now the challenges become a little bit more difficult.”
Game time Saturday is 3:30 at the MTS Centre, and Team Canada will wear pink uniforms in honour of the original 1990 World Championship-winning team. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at (204) 780-3333, or by visiting ticketmaster.ca/iihf.