SOCHI, Russia — Welcome to the white-hot intensity of women’s ice hockey.
When the U.S. and Canada meet Wednesday in the opening round of the Sochi Olympic tournament, someone will inevitably spill the tea and burn the crumpets. The teams face off at 4:30 p.m., local time (7:30 a.m. ET).
Canada may be the 10-time world champion and winner of the last three Olympic gold medals, and the U.S. may have won the first Olympic gold in 1998 and five world titles since then, but overall, Canada has a 60 percent winning percentage against the U.S. in world and Olympic play — and when Canada pushes to improve the stat and the U.S. pulls to reverse it, tempers flare.
The rivalry is so intense that melees erupted twice this year — during exhibition games, when nothing was at stake but pride.
On Oct. 12, in Burlington, Vt., U.S. forward Jocelyne Lamoureux collided with Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados in the final minutes, and suddenly, it was MMA on skates: part wrestling, part boxing, part facemask grabbing. (The U.S. lost the game, 3-2).
Then, on Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D. — a date that will live in hockey infamy — the U.S. had a 4-1 lead over Canada, and, with nine seconds to go in the game, 10 major penalties were issued for fighting.
“One of the girls kinda slashed our goalie,” said U.S. forward Hilary Knight, who was involved in the brawl.
When Canadian defender Jocelyne Larocque rushed Knight, “I dropped her with my body,” Knight said. “She went flying! I was like, ‘Maybe she won’t get up again.’ Then she came in swinging and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I ended up tripping and falling and continuing to get my head smashed into the ice. It’s sort of a known code that you don’t hit someone when they’re on the ice.”
Larocque doesn’t deny the skull-pummeling.
“We got a shot on net, then they started punching our players,” Larocque said after practice Monday at Shayba Arena. “I saw two (U.S.) players on one of our players, so I just grabbed one and tried to, you know, make the fight a little more even,” ignoring Knight’s 33-pound weight and 5-inch height advantage.
The next day, the U.S. team headed home for Christmas break and every TV monitor in the airport was replaying the fight.
“What the heck?” Knight recalled thinking. “We’ve never had this much coverage — ever.”
Knight’s dad texted her, saying, “You guys changed hockey in six seconds with that fight,” but all Knight could glean from the replay was, “Wow — they kept hitting me! That wasn’t very nice!”
“It was my first game coaching (women) and it caught me off guard,” said Canada head coach Kevin Dineen. “I was surprised.”
The ex-Florida Panthers coach had been on the job for exactly three days after his predecessor, Dan Church, resigned.
Now more than a month into his tenure, Dineen is weary of fielding questions about the 16-year rivalry.
“Hoo boy,” Dineen sighed. “It’s a well-worn story, but a good one.”
“Any time we play Canada there’s borderline checking,” said U.S. forward Monique Lamoureux. “If someone wants to say there’s no physicality in (women’s) hockey, I think it’s naïve.”
Even among professional teammates.
“When I’m wearing USA and she’s wearing Canada, we want to kill each other,” said Knight, referring to Canada goalie Genevieve Lacasse. Knight also calls Lacasse, “a good family friend” when the two play for the Boston Blades of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
“Tempers flare, and people get riled up,” Knight said. “As long as people don’t get injured, it’s fine.”
Except when it’s not.
In Sochi, fighting carries a penalty of a one-game suspension.
“That won’t happen on my watch,” Dineen said.
What if the goalie happens to end up in a smackdown?
“We’re not going to see it,” Dineen said. “It’s a moot point. It won’t happen.”
That may be true if the U.S. goalie happens to be Molly Schaus. The Dec. 20 fisticuffs happened right behind the two-time Olympian’s crease.
“I could kind of hear it and feel it,” Schaus said. “Then I looked up and saw everyone going at it. I watched a little, but for the most part — unless the other goalie were to come down — I think my teammates had it covered.
“Much to my mom’s pleasure, I did not get involved.”