American women’s hockey team relishes underdog role

If the players on the American women’s hockey team are out to avenge their loss on home ice to Canada at the 2002 Olympics, they’re not saying so.

Team Canada hockey player Kim St. Pierre

Team Canada hockey player Kim St. Pierre

VANCOUVER — If the players on the American women’s hockey team are out to avenge their loss on home ice to Canada at the 2002 Olympics, they’re not saying so.

Canada and the United States are the top-ranked teams in any women’s hockey event, and their now 20-year-old rivalry will add another chapter beginning Saturday at the 2010 Winter Games.

The Americans can do in Vancouver what the Canadians did in Salt Lake City eight years ago — get an upset victory in the final in their dreaded rival’s rink.

”I’m not focused on paying them back, just on playing my best hockey,” three-time Olympian Julie Chiu of the U.S. squad said Thursday. ”We lost the gold medal, it happened to be on our soil, and here we want to put ourselves in position to be in the gold medal game.

”Our goal is to win a gold medal, and if it’s on Canadian soil, that’s what it turns out to be.”

It is the fourth time women’s hockey will be a medal sport at the Olympics. The Americans beat Canada 3-1 in the first final in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, but Canada answered with a 3-2 victory four years later, despite an American referee who slapped Canada with 13 minor penalties.

The U.S. hit a speed bump in 2006 in Turin, Italy, losing 3-2 to Sweden in the semifinals. Canada beat the Swedes 4-1 to claim the gold medal and the Americans settled for bronze.

The setback prompted changes in the American team, and 15 first-time Olympians are on the 21-player squad in Vancouver.

They check themselves now before discussing any impending meeting with Canada, knowing there are games that must be won against underdogs first — starting Sunday against China.

”You saw it in the last Games, we overlooked Sweden a bit, so we’re focusing one game at a time,” said Angela Ruggiero, who is at her fourth Olympics.

Still, Ruggiero is pleased to load any extra pressure she can on Canada.

”They’re not only the defending gold medallist, they’re hosting, and it’s their national sport — they have a lot on their shoulders,” she said. ”They can deny it as much as they want, but there’s the weight of a nation on them.

”We have no pressure. We know what we have to do to win.”

Canada swept all six games of an exhibition series with the Americans between October and Jan. 1, and also beat them 5-1 in the final of the Four nations tournament on Nov. 8 after dropping a 3-2 decision in the preliminary round two days earlier.

Both sides know that means little. Going into the 2002 Games, the Americans were 35-0 for the season and had won eight in a row against Canada.

The focus for coach Mark Johnson, a member of the U.S. Miracle On Ice men’s hockey team from the 1980 Games, is to peak in Vancouver.

Ruggiero said much of the season was spent working out which players would make the Olympic squad, and that once the team was named in late December, they played better, even though they lost 2-1 and 3-2 in a shootout to Canada after the announcement — the latter before a record crowd of 16,347 in Ottawa.

”We didn’t win, but we outplayed Canada in both of those games,” she said. ”So I feel we’re in a really good position.

”We don’t have the pressure on our shoulders any more because we’re picked to be second now, and that’s OK with me. We have great spirit on our locker room and a lot of confidence.”

The 2002 Games looked to have turned nasty when a report surfaced that the American players had trod on Canada’s flag before the final, which U.S. players flatly denied.

”Not true in any way,” said Natalie Darwitz, now the team captain. ”That was fresh out of 9-11, we came out of the locker room and that’s the first thing we heard from the media: why did you stomp on Canada’s flag?

”All of us were a bit taken aback. We were going into a gold-medal game, we’re not going to resort to that.”

She said the rivalry with Canada is intense, but not to the point of hatred.

”With Canada, it’s hard-fought games,” she said. ”It’s intense rivalry.

”They’ll do anything to stop us and we’ll do the same. It’s giving every ounce of energy in every game. You don’t want to lose a single battle with Canada — a race for a loose puck or battling in the corner — because winning those little battles is so meaningful.”

In fact, several players on the two squads have been teammates at U.S. universities or have met through other avenues and are friends off the ice. Chiu played with Canada’s Sarah Vaillancourt and Jennifer Botterill at Harvard and has coached Canadian forward Haley Irwin at Minnesota-Duluth.

Darwitz says the rivalry is good for both sides.

”It feels good to win against them and it feels like someone’s ripping you apart when you lose to them,” she said. ”That’s why we play the game, for those types of emotions, to face competitors who bring the best out in each other.”