VANCOUVER — If you want to know about the women's hockey rivalry between Canada and U.S., all you have to do is ask. And watch a little.
Quiz a player from either side and you're bound to get some run-of-the mill answers. You'll also get reactions that will be raw. Some will look immediately like they were punched in the gut. Others will look like they want to punch you in the gut.
There are players who can't hide it. Or, in some cases, they don't want to hide it. These teams, who have met in 14 of the 15 combined world championship and Olympic finals, can breed that instant emotion within one another.
"Half the time, you're staying in the same hotel and, when it's really heated, it can be interesting to be sharing an elevator," said Cammi Granato, the former U.S. star who now lives in Vancouver with her husband, retired NHLer Ray Ferraro, and their family.
"I've watched the rivalry evolve. When we were younger, it was so intense and I think people had trouble leaving it on the ice. I think the teams have started to begin to respect each other.
"It's got to the point where you can actually talk to somebody on the other team and your team will not hate you."
Granato might have a point. There were outlandish episodes early on.
Like during the round-robin portion of the 1998 Nagano Olympics, when the Canadians were livid after U.S. forward Sandra Whyte allegedly mocked Canadian forward Danielle Goyette about her father, who had died days earlier as a result of Alzheimer's disease. Whyte wouldn't repeat what she said, insisting that it wasn't suitable for public consumption, but denied it had anything to do with Goyette's father.
Or there was the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, when the Canadians steadfastly stated that the Americans had put a Canadian flag on their dressing room floor and stomped on it. The Americans vehemently balked at the idea.
Things haven't got that messy in the past few years, but it's not like it's close to cordial either. The games between the two teams are routinely filled with scrums after whistles, something that you don't see regularly in women's hockey, and a donnybrook at the end of an exhibition tilt in Victoria in October felt like it was one more shove away from breaking out into a line brawl. A YouTube video of the incident is closing in on 50,000 views.
As for conversing, U.S. forward Julie Chu says that there are players from both sides who friendly off the ice. She also maintains that there are some players on both sides who are opposed to any sort of contact.
"For me, that doesn't work," said Chu. "They can conduct themselves in their way. I respect them for that."
That's part of what makes the rivalry so delicious. There are players here who don't like the opposition. And there are players who want to win for bragging rights over buddies.
Chu played at Harvard alongside Canadian forwards Jennifer Botterill and Sarah Vaillancourt. One of Botterill's roommates during that time at the school was U.S. defenceman Angela Ruggiero.
Chu also was an assistant coach at the Minnesota-Duluth for a season. The other assistant that campaign was Canadian stalwart forward Caroline Ouellette and one of the players on that team was Canadian centre Haley Irwin.
Consider this: Wisconsin, Harvard, Minnesota-Duluth and Ohio State have at least one player on each of the teams. Combined, they have 19 of the two squads' 46 players. Wisconsin gets bonus marks, since U.S. coach Mark Johnson is the Badgers' coach. There are seven Wisconsin products on the U.S. team and two of Johnson's former players, defenders Carla MacLeod and Meaghan Mikkelson, are on Canada's roster.
"Usually it takes about 10 days after they return from an international tournament for our team to come back together," said Minnesota-Duluth coach Shannon Miller, a former coach of the Canadian women's team who has had assorted internationals on her NCAA team over the years, including ones from Sweden and Finland.
"All the national team players come back from a series, I always tell people that we're going to lose that first game, no matter who it is against. People don't understand. They'll be like, 'Yeah, but you have all these great players.' They don't understand that physically they might be here, but they're not really here right away.
"Eventually, their friendships bring down those barriers. Eventually, they open up and become teammates again."
Miller let Chu and Ouellette practise in full gear that season. The players felt that it gave them an opportunity to stay in game shape, and Miller believed they could be good examples for her troops.
It worked. Mostly.
"There were some moments where there was a little too much intensity, where it was a Canada-U.S. situation," laughed Miller.
Of course there was.
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