ADLER, Russia -- As with many a legend, the story of the U.S.-Canada women's hockey rivalry is clouded by time and hatred, the truth sometimes as hard to distinguish as the intent behind the head snapping hits on goaltenders that frequent a feud marked by low blows on and off the ice.
U.S. and Canada once again meet in the Olympic Games final Thursday, the latest chapter in a three-decade border war in which the teams have distinguished themselves from their game, other women's sport and even the Winter Olympics themselves with their unparallel play and an equally unrivaled animosity.
"This is the best rivalry in Olympic sport," said former Team Canada standout Cassie Campbell-Pascall.
Canada and the United States take the ice at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, each bringing their own versions of a shared history both brilliant and ugly, so it is that the rivalry is best perhaps captured by a moment of fiction.
For the final four days of the 2002 Olympic tournament, Campbell-Pascall carried around with her a story she knew would make her teammates' heads spin, just waiting for the right moment to share it.
Canadian rink workers at the Olympic arena told Campbell-Pascall that Team USA had been using a Canadian flag as essentially a doormat in their dressing room during the Salt Lake City Games.
During the second and third period intermission of the gold medal final, Campbell-Pascall knew it was time to share her story. With Canada up, 3-2, but sensing the U.S. was the better team, Campbell-Pascall grabbed a Canadian flag, repeated the workers' story "that our flag was on the floor as they walked out of their dressing room and so they would have had to step on it every time they walked out."
As Campbell-Pascall was finishing, mission accomplished, her teammates enraged, Canada coach Daniele Sauvageau came into the room to give her own pep talk.
"And she realized that she didn't need to say anything," Campbell-Pascall said. "That we were pissed."
Canada won, 5-2.
It turned out the workers had told Campbell-Pascall a story that wasn't true. And after a Canadian player repeated the story in postgame interviews, Campbell-Pascall had to make the rounds apologizing to the USOC, USA Hockey, the IOC, the International Hockey Federation.
But that the Canadians would so readily accept the story speaks volumes about the bitterness and intensity of the rivalry.
"I think it's the best game you can play and each team is looking for some sort of edge and I think when all is said and done behind closed doors you don't really care if you step on one of them or if you say something bad because you're looking for that edge," Campbell-Pascall, now a reporter on "Hockey Night In Canada" said while nursing a hot chocolate late Wednesday afternoon.
In the years since Salt Lake City, the rivalry has become even more intense, the fire both raising the game to new heights and sometimes dropping it to new lows. Canada has won three consecutive Olympic titles. The U.S. has won five World titles since 2005.
"It brings the best out in you," U.S. forward Kendall Coyne said of the rivalry.
And sometimes the worst.
The teams squared off in a fight during an Oct. 12 game in Burlington, Vt., after U.S. defenseman Monique Lamoureux bumped Canada goaltender Shannon Szabados. Lamoureux's twin sister Jocelyne touched off an even larger brawl in a December, 4-1 U.S. victory in Grand Forks, N.D. When it was all over the referee had handed out 10 fighting majors and there were six U.S. players in the penalty box, five Canadians.
This month both teams have tried to shrug off the fights.
"They get competitive, they get heated and we are all very passionate," Monique Lamoureux said.
"We don't really like each other on the ice," Canada defenseman Catherine Ward said. "I think it's part of the rivalry, but it gets rough. Both teams like to compete and sometimes it just crosses the line a little bit."
That so many Americans and Canadians play with and against each other in U.S. college hockey, in the Canadian women's league and so frequently at the international level, has taken the rivalry to different level, both good and bad.
"It's kind of gotten a little bit nastier and, not that it wasn't before, but I think there was a mutual respect about the pioneers of the program," Campbell-Pascall said. "Now I think it's just become a little more personal.
"(Before) you were looking for that edge. But I think there was a bit more respect in the sense in that we appreciated what (U.S. players) were doing for the game in the U.S. and I think that's gone, that part's gone, that respect is gone."
The two teams have also struggled to gain the respect from some of the IOC and many in the media. The IOC has spent much of the last decade paying lip service to the need to create more competitive opportunities for women. Yet instead of embracing the U.S.-Canada rivalry and its greatness, some IOC members have used the gap between the two countries and the rest of the world as an excuse to question whether the sport should remain in the Winter Games, a drumbeat picked up by some in the media.
It is criticism that ignores both the game's growth and popularity both in North America and Europe. Canada's 3-2 preliminary round victory against the U.S. last week drew 5.6 million viewers on CBC. Countries such as Finland, Sweden and Russia are now producing world-class players on a regular basis.
"People don't generally cover women's hockey unless it's in an Olympic year," Campbell-Pascall said. "So they don't see the growth. They don't see the changes that are happening in some of the other (countries) because a lot of those people who write those articles don't ever cover women's hockey. They become knowledgeable people without doing their research."
When the U.S. and Canada square off Thursday night another gold medal on the line, Campbell-Pascall is one of many who hope the IOC, the media, the world, see the occasion as a moment of celebration not exclusion; that they embrace the rivalry, its genius and clenched fists, a rivalry without equal even if its lore has sometimes been too good to be true.
"I'm trying to think of individual figure skating battles, trying to think of speedskating battles" that match the Canada-U.S. rivalry, Campell-Pascall said. "There's nothing that really pops out. I just truly think this is the best rivalry in sports."
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