PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – Back in September, Amanda Kessel was asked about the last time the U.S. played Canada in the Olympics.
It was one of the better hockey games you’ll ever see – men’s or women’s, NHL or international, pro or college. It was but a chapter in what is truly one of sport’s greatest rivalries.
“I’ll never watch that game again in my life,” Kessel said. “Honestly I don’t want to see anything from it. I learned I never want that feeling again in my life.”
The Americans were less than four minutes from gold, up 2-0 in Sochi and finally ready to break a spell that’s lasted throughout this century. Canada had won the Olympic title in 2002, 2006, 2010 and now, finally, the U.S. would grab it back.
Then Canada scored with 3:26 left. Then Canada scored with less than a minute left.
“I never lost faith or confidence,” Kessel said. “Even after they came back from 2-0 to tie it up. Going into overtime – I get chills right now – I still thought we were going to win. I had no doubt. I was feeling good. Never lost confidence.”
The U.S. got a power play in overtime and couldn’t convert. The Canadians got a power play and they scored. Game over. Gold gone. The Americans stood in shock, many in tears, as their foes received their medals. It was a soul-crushing scene if you’re a fan of the U.S., and for Kessel it was even worse waking up the next day.
“Terrible,” she said. “Devastation. Disbelief. What just happened?”
Now, finally, the long wait for revenge is almost over. After a 5-0 whitewash of the Olympic Athletes from Russia on Tuesday, Team USA will face Canada in its final group match on Thursday. The big one most likely awaits later, in a possible gold medal rematch, but they are all “the big one” when these teams meet in the Olympics. Both teams are 2-0.
“You don’t really have to try to motivate yourself,” said Monique Lamoureux-Morando. “It’s gonna come.”
There really aren’t a lot of great rivalries anymore. Patriots v. Colts has lost its luster since Peyton Manning retired. Yankees v. Red Sox is always good, but those battles are frequent and the magnitude is dependent on how the teams are doing. Cavaliers v. Warriors has been excellent, but it doesn’t stretch across many years.
U.S. v. Canada has drama and duration. It has a college-level intensity and pro-level talent. It is UConn v. Tennessee from the older days, when Pat Summitt paced the sidelines and shot icy glares while Geno Auriemma folded his arms and grimaced. Back then it felt like every other college basketball game was merely a warm-up, and such is the feeling in this rivalry too.
The players themselves will never, ever say that, but “one game at a time” is only to keep their minds from invariably landing on the ultimate – Canada in the Olympics. Every American player knows its been 20 years since the team won gold, and every American player knows exactly why it’s been that long.
It’s here again. It’s not the gold medal match, not yet. But it’s here.
“I have no doubt we’re ready,” goalie Nicole Hensley said.
They’ve been ready for a long time.
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