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With gold on the line, PyeongChang ushers in new chapter of USA-Canada rivalry

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Cassie Campbell has an elevator story.

It happened at a world women’s hockey championship tournament around 20 years ago. Campbell, who captained Canada at the 2002 and 2006 Olympics, saw the hotel elevator door open. The lift was packed with U.S. players.

Campbell squeezed in at the front. She nodded to the Americans whom she knew, then turned around to face the door, her back to her rivals.

A U.S. rookie, whom Campbell will not name, started chirping.

“I have a lot of respect for her, but she didn’t say some very nice things,” Campbell said. “It was kind of easy to say when you’ve got 10 teammates with you and I’m by myself.”

Campbell’s floor came before the Americans’ floor.

“I got off the elevator, and I turned around to [U.S. veteran] Karyn Bye, and I said, ‘Hey, take care of your rookies and make sure they respect the game,’” Campbell said. “I walked off. I think the point was well taken.”

The U.S. and Canada play in the Olympic women’s hockey final on Thursday. It’s the fifth time in six Olympics since women’s hockey was added in 1998 that they face off for gold.

The rivalry is the storyline, and rightfully so, but like anything it has evolved over two decades. The hate between players 15 and 20 years ago and the stories, some mythical, are no longer as evident off the ice. Or at least as talked about openly.

“It feels like it has a less sharp edge than it did when I played,” said NBC Olympics analyst A.J. Mleczko, who played for the U.S. in 1998 and 2002. “The difference, I think, between now and then is [the Canadians] did not very frequently come south of the border to go to school or to play. Now, these athletes play on the same team for months out of the year [in college and in U.S. and Canadian leagues].”

Of the 23 players on Canada’s Olympic team in PyeongChang, 21 played NCAA hockey. There was no formal NCAA women’s hockey in 1998.

Twenty years ago, the U.S. and Canada played each other 13 times before the Nagano Olympics and stayed in the same hotel every time, Mleczko said.

Players from both teams were known to not board an elevator if a player from the opposite team was on it.

"I have had the chance to become very friendly with Cassie Campbell, who was on that team,” Mleczko said before the U.S. beat Finland 5-0 in Monday’s semifinals (Canada beat the Olympic Athletes from Russia 5-0 later Monday). "We laugh about it now. She says, ‘We were told that you weren’t allowed to be with us.’

"That wasn’t true. We just didn’t want to."

Campbell, commentating for CBC here, described herself as “a bit of a s--- disturber” while on the national team from 1994-2006.

“I heard a story, whether it was true or not, that they [Americans] weren’t allowed to talk to us,” Campbell said. “So I would go out of my way to go and talk to them at the cafeteria.”

If that was playful or mind games, what happened (or didn’t happen) in the second U.S.-Canada group-play game in Nagano became personal.

Canada’s coach intimated that a U.S. player (later deemed Sandra Whyte) trash talked Canadian Danielle Goyette by bringing up Goyette’s father who died on the eve of the Games.

“Zero truth,” Mleczko said. “I’m not denying that there might have been words said by everybody … but nothing about Goyette, specifically, and certainly nothing about her father.”

Campbell didn’t hear it on the ice, but she believes it happened.

“I don’t blame Sandra Whyte for that,” she said. “I would have never done it, but that was the intensity of the rivalry where you’re looking for an edge. Danielle Goyette was our best player. I, personally, would have never attacked someone personally, but I understand why she did it. Goyette was our best player, and she’s trying to knock her off her game. That shows you the intensity of the rivalry back then. To go there, there was a true hatred.”

Then came 2002. Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser gave this legendary interview after beating the Americans in the Salt Lake City Olympic final.

"The Americans had our flag on their floor in the dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it,” she passionately told Don Cherry.

In between the second and third periods of that final, the Canadian captain Campbell told the rest of her team a story that she heard about the U.S. trampling a Canadian flag in their dressing room.

“That story should have never been public, and I feel bad about that,” Campbell said Monday. “I had heard it from an arena attendant, and I had heard it during the tournament earlier. I kept it in my back pocket.

“They were a better team than we were. We were up 3-1 going to the third, and I really felt as a captain that we needed to be mad to beat them. So I did tell that story. At the time, I believed it was true. Now, it should have never gone public. Unfortunately, one of our players who was never even asked for an interview decided to do an interview and decided to talk about it. Then it became an international incident.

I [later] spoke to [U.S. captain] Cammi [Granato] about it, and I believe that it didn’t happen.”

Fewer stories like that spread over the last four Olympic cycles, but some incidents kept the rivalry burning.

Multiple U.S. players received concussions on hits from the same Canadian player, forward Gillian Apps, a 6-foot granddaughter of an NHL Lady Byng Trophy recipient.

And the 2010 Olympic final. Canada celebrated a 2-0 win by riding an ice-resurfacing machine after fans exited the arena, smoking cigars and pounding Molsons.

"None of us really gave them a hard time," U.S. forward Julie Chu said a few years ago. "At the same time, the locker room is a great place to celebrate, too."

The 2014 Olympic final isn’t remembered for any bitter hatred or unsportsmanlike behavior but rather for its utter quality and the unbelievable ending.

Canada scored twice in the final 3 1/2 minutes to tie it at 2-all. In that span, a U.S. clearing shot toward an empty Canadian net clanged off the post. Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both goals in the 2010 Olympic final, potted the tying score with 55 seconds left in regulation and the golden goal eight minutes into overtime.

Canadian GM Melody Davidson said before this tournament that the U.S. is the favorite as three-time reigning world champion.

“It’s a healthy rivalry,” Davidson said. “Back in those early days, the girls never knew each other as people. These girls have all gone to school with most of these Olympians. They know them. I would even venture to say some of them take vacations together.”

Canada then beat the U.S. in group play on Thursday, its fifth straight win in the rivalry.

U.S. star forward Hilary Knight said Monday that Canada is the favorite. “All the pressure’s on them,” she said.

Before this tournament, seven Canadian players were asked to describe the rivalry in one word. Two said “fun.” The closest thing to a stinging answer was “intense.”

“It does feel a little differently to me,” Mleczko said. “I think they do ride elevators together.”

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