Best of enemies US and Canada will puck up the courage to do it again

No love lost between the two nations who dominate the women’s game

Canada’s Meghan Agosta-Marciano (left) scores what turns out to be the game-winning goal past Team USA’s goalie Jessie Vetter during the third period of their women’s ice hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photograph:  Matt Slocum/Reuters

Canada’s Meghan Agosta-Marciano (left) scores what turns out to be the game-winning goal past Team USA’s goalie Jessie Vetter during the third period of their women’s ice hockey game at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Photograph: Matt Slocum/Reuters

Thu, Feb 13, 2014, 01:00

Well this was fun. A game that was only taking place this early in the competition because of unashamed gerrymandering by the organisers provided everything they could have hoped for and more.

The women ice hockey players of Canada and the USA came together and rattled every nut, bolt and rivet of the Shayba Arena and set the table for what will, barring famine and/or pestilence, be the final this day week. God bless gimmickry.

Canada won 3-2 in a game that hummed throughout. The result didn’t matter in any meaningful way – both sides were already qualified for semi-finals that both will win next Monday – and yet they tore into it like they’d bugged each other’s team rooms and heard what they really thought of each other.

“I think there is always pride on the line between us – nobody wants to give an inch,” said Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser, playing in her fifth Winter Olympics. “Whether it is gold medal or not, if feels like it’s a gold-medal game every time we play because we are the two best teams in the sport. We push each other, fans love to watch these games and it’s great hockey.”


Overlooked by officials
The last couple of times the sides met featured proper one-in-all-in brawls. Body checking is supposedly not allowed in women’s hockey but you wouldn’t know it to watch them. This was as bump and thump as you can get with hooking, tripping, roughing and checking all called for penalties and plenty more overlooked by the officials. The height of craic, in other words.

As it should be. Between them, they’ve only been beaten once at the games but someone other than each other since women’s ice hockey was introduced in 1988.

So far ahead of the field are they that they’ve always been kept apart in the opening rounds – in Vancouver four years ago Canada won their group games by an aggregate of 41-2, the US by 31-1.

When then IOC president Jacques Rogge warned that the whole show was in danger of becoming too uncompetitive, the organisers changed things around and put them in the same group so as to spice up the early rounds. It’s contrived and a blatant ratings-grab and not one person in the Shayba yesterday wanted it to end.


Contentious affair
It even had a refereeing to-do to get excited about. After the US had jumped into a 1-0 lead – the first time Canada had gone behind in 1,057 minutes of Olympic competition – Canada scored twice inside 90 seconds. While the first was a simple finish from Meghan Agosta after the imperious Wickenheiser found her with a lovely flick pass, the second was a more contentious affair.

American goalie Jessie Vetter stopped a shot and lay down to cover the puck to get the play called dead. What happened next is down to a matter of personal preference. Vetter swore she had it covered and the referee’s whistle seemed to end the play. But the puck squirted loose for Wickenheiser to finish to the net and even though replays suggested that the whistle had gone before Wickenheiser’s shot, the goal stood.

“I brought it into my body and as far as I knew I had it under my body all the way.” said Vetter afterwards. “I heard a whistle but then they said it was a goal. I didn’t think it was a goal but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

Finnish referee Anna Eskola skated over to the side of the rink to watch the replay and presumably – because she put on headphones – to listen to the audio. Though the whistle had clearly gone, it had arguably gone in error since Vetter had let the puck go without any interference. So the right decision had probably been arrived at, albeit by a circuitous route. Not that it was any comfort to the Americans.

“I’m not sure what they have for equipment,” said US coach Katey Stone. “All I asked is that she check that the whistle had blown before the puck went in. It appeared so but what are you going to do? We had a lot time left in that game so I’m not going to hang my hat on that one. I think we can play better.”

The semi-final line-up is likely to be Canada v Finland and USA v Sweden before a rematch in the final. It’s one event at the Winter Olympics they won’t need to send in volunteers to fill the seats.

“I think a couple of us, with the loss, might be a little more motivated now to work a little harder now,” said a clearly irritated Vetter. “We’ll push ourselves a little bit more and hopefully be in this situation again. It’s always a close game between us and it’s definitely going to push us ahead of the next time we play.”

The final is next Thursday, 5.00pm Irish time. Consider notice served.