At the Sochi Olympics, there have been magnificent triumphs for Canadian athletes (moguls skier Alex Bilodeau, bobsledders Kaillie Humphries, Heather Moyse) and disappointments, too (Charles Hamelin's crashes in short track speed skating). But nothing makes a Canadian's heart race faster than a good old hockey game wrapped up in a red Maple Leaf.
Not only that, there was much at stake in Thursday's game between the Canadian and the U.S. women.
Canada wanted to win more medals overall than it did at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The women's hockey team was eager to shake off several stinging losses to the Americans, including one that happened the same day its coach, Dan Church, resigned, thus opening the door for Kevin Dineen.
Tossed into that mix was the fight for women's hockey against International Olympic Committee types saying the sport hadn't grown since it was added to the winter program in 1998. Every four years, the IOC argued, it's usually the same thing – Canada vs. the U.S.
True, but that same thing has produced must-see encounters, including two recent lead-up games that included line brawls. That's not the sort of thing you expect to see in women's hockey, but it was a testimony to how much the two sides want to beat each other.
Canada vs. the U.S. has become a rivalry as monumental as anything in the men's hockey tournament, and that includes Friday's semi-final clash between Canada and the U.S.
In 1998, when the American women won hockey gold, they left their Canadian counterparts crushed and in tears. In 2002, the Canadians told stories about the Americans putting a Canadian flag on the floor of their dressing room so they could walk all over it. It was never proved, although it did spike the fever pitch between the two sides, helping Canada win its first gold. In Turin, the U.S. didn't make it to the final. In Vancouver, it was back to more of the same in a good way; the teams gave all they could before Canada prevailed.
In many ways, Thursday's clash was better than what had happened four years before in Vancouver.
This time, the millions of Canadians watching the women's hockey final were taken on an emotional ride like never before. They saw the Canada team being chased all over the Sochi ice by an American team that was younger, faster, seemingly more determined.
And when Canada trailed 2-0 with less than four minutes remaining in regulation time, it looked as if the evening was lost.
Then came the moments that will live in Canadian sports history for years – generations, perhaps. One late goal. Another. An overtime winner on a four-on-three Canadian power play and suddenly there were the refuse-to-lose Canadians, surrounding and hugging Marie-Philip Poulin, the scorer of the Golden Goal for women's hockey.
No other Canada-U.S. women's hockey matchup has ever produced as much tension as Thursday's did. None has been so dramatic. That Canada had to rally from behind, relying on heart as much as skill, spoke loudly to our national pride. It was a signature win, coming on the same day as Jennifer Jones took gold in curling, and it hit all the right notes for the singing of O Canada.
"It's the best feeling ever," Poulin said afterward. "It's like a dream come true."
At the Sochi Olympics, Canadians have cheered their medalists and supported those who have come close to the podium. Still, there has always been an emotional soft spot for hockey. As Canadian fans have been known to say: "As long as we win the gold in hockey, I'm okay with that."
Things may soon change on the Olympic hockey front. The NHL isn't sure about committing its players to 2018 and Pyeonchang, South Korea. Instead, Hockey Canada may have to ice a men's team of players culled from various European leagues. That was how it once was before the NHLers were allowed. And if the NHLers stay in North America, then Canada's best chance at hockey glory will be the women's team.
Veteran Hayley Wickenheiser won't be there. Jayna Hefford will have retired before 2018, too. A new core of players, including Poulin, will have picked up the mantle to make new moments worth remembering.
Just know they'll be up against the U.S. in a game that always matters, to them and to all of us.
Canada's three stars
1. Marie-Philip Poulin
Four years ago in Vancouver, she was a soft-spoken, 18-year-old Olympic rookie – the youngest member of Canada's squad – who carried the team and scored its only two goals in the final to crush the U.S. and put Canada atop the podium. Remarkably, the feisty native of Beauceville, Que., came to Canada's rescue again Thursday in Sochi, Russia, scoring not only the dramatic tying goal, but the overtime winner, as well. It's a remarkable finish to a trying season for the Boston University star known affectionately to her Canadian teammates as "Pou." The speedy 22-year-old forward had been sidelined with a serious ankle injury for several months while her teammates played pre-Olympic training games. Poulin only stepped back into competition in late December, mere weeks before the team left for Europe.
2. Shannon Szabados
It's tough to believe that going into the Vancouver Games four years ago, Szabados was the youngest and most unproven of Canada's three goalies. The reliable and athletic netminder with the signature curly locks springing from the back of her goalie helmet has now won two straight gold-medal finals and earned a reputation as the world's premier female goalie. The Edmonton native, who has been kicking out pucks against male college hockey players in Alberta for years, made 26 saves in Thursday's game, five of them during the heated, sudden-death overtime period. After allowing the Americans the first two goals of the game, the poised 27-year-old pounced on everything the speedy U.S players dished at her, even through several power plays, to keep her Canadian team in the hunt while they engineered the comeback victory.
3. Kevin Dineen
When Dan Church resigned as coach of Canada's women's team just eight weeks before the Sochi Olympics, many believed the team must be in shambles, its Olympic fortunes in great peril. Before Sochi, the U.S. had bested the Canadians for gold at the 2013 world championship and stomped them in the final four pre-Olympic exhibition games between the two. Dineen, fresh off his firing from the NHL's Florida Panthers, stepped in with less than two months until puck drop in Russia and never experienced a win over the U.S. women. The 50-year-old coach had to catch up on the women's game quickly. He went against the norm by making Caroline Ouellette the team's captain rather than Hayley Wickenheiser, who had long worn the C. In the end, he helped orchestrate two wins in Sochi over an American team many had favoured to win it all.
– Rachel Brady