Rivalry carries to yet another Olympics

The U.S. and Canadian women have swapped gold the past two Games and are favorites again.

Published February 10, 2006

The story of women's hockey in these Olympic Games embraces a rivalry of Yankees-Red Sox proportions. It's the United States vs. Canada.

Round 3.

When women's hockey made its Olympic debut in the 1998 Nagano Games, the United States came away with the inaugural gold medal, defeating Canada in the final. Four years later in Salt Lake City, Canada won the gold with the United States earning the silver.

Now, all signs point to another gold-medal showdown of North American neighbors. The U.S. team enters Turin on the heels of its first world championship gold, secured in a shootout victory in the final over, you guessed it, Canada.

"We bring out the best in them and they bring out the best in us," said forward Jenny Potter, making her third Olympic appearance. "It's always a battle on the ice."

The United States is coached by Ben Smith, who has been with the team since its start in '98. Smith says the competition to make the U.S. squad has grown increasingly intense with each Olympics. Evidence of that: longtime Olympic standout Cammi Granato didn't make the cut.

"As a coaching staff, we're always trying to raise the bar," he said. "Every time there's an Olympics, our registered players at U.S. Hockey swells 10-12 percent, and as our pool gets larger, it gets that much more competitive. ... Nobody comes into camp thinking they've made it. That might not have been the case in 1998 or maybe even 2002."

"The teams have better athletes now," said star defenseman Angela Ruggiero, a four-time All-American from Harvard playing in her third Olympics. "It's a very fast-paced game now. If I was the same player who tried out in '98 today, I wouldn't make the team."

Potter says anyone who saw the team play in Salt Lake - in person or on TV - will be surprised at the level of skill and the physical nature of the game.

"Since '98, the competition has gotten better and the players have gotten better," she said. "I think people will be really impressed watching us play, as far as ability goes and how skillful the players are on our team. It's amazing. We've worked (on skills) the past four years to win back that gold medal."

Potter is the only woman on the team who is a mother (she has a 4-year-old daughter). With four goals in four games, she was named MVP at the 2005 Women's Four Nations Cup. Another fixture on the 22-player squad is team captain/forward Krissy Wendell. She was the top scorer and MVP in the '05 World Championships, when the United States snapped its streak of eight straight silver medals.

"Very few people get the chance to put on the USA jersey," she said. "It's something you never want to take for granted."

Two key newcomers are forward Kelly Stephens (who has played in six USA Hockey National Women's Festivals) and goaltender Chanda Gunn (named top goalkeeper in the 2005 International Ice Hockey Federation world championships).

Gunn watched the '98 gold-medal game on TV as a high school junior in California. "I remember watching the U.S. and being on the edge of my seat," she said. "It was a close game and was really inspiring."

And it's an outcome Gunn and her teammates are aiming to match against one very familiar foe.