Wickenheiser, Canada set to face U.S. for Olympic gold, again
Team Canada forward Hayley Wickenheiser during practice at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 15, 2014. (AL CHAREST/QMI Agency)
There have been plenty of new experiences for Hayley Wickenheiser in these, her fifth and surely final Olympic Games.
There was the well-deserved honour of leading the Canadian team into the Fisht Stadium for the opening ceremony plus some opportunities to enjoy the sun and sea away from the rink when the weather was spectacular earlier in the Games.
But the 35-year-old Saskatchewan native didn’t come to Russia to soak up the experience or to be a tourist.
She came here for the inevitable: A gold medal showdown with the only other team capable of competing for a title in women’s hockey.
So when the Canadian and American women clash once again Thursday, what will be different about the matchup this time around?
“It’s always a little different in the leadup, but in terms of the game itself, it’s the same big game and the same big event,” Wickenheiser said Tuesday while watching the Canadian men practice prior to their Wednesday quarterfinal contest.
“The makeup of each and every team makes it feel a little different. But it’s another game against the U.S. and we all know what that means.”
What it means is the tournament has gone exactly to script, albeit one so predictable that the quadrennial cries for its removal from the Olympics are growing. For the Canadian women, the highlight here was a 3-2 win over the U.S. in preliminary-round play. That victory snapped a four-game losing streak to their rivals, part of a six-game exhibition series that took place in November and December.
In the 15 world championships played in women’s hockey, the Canadians and Americans have met in all of them, with Canada holding a 10-5 edge. At the Olympics, with Wickenheiser on the roster for each of them, Canada has three wins to one for the U.S.
Monday’s unexpectedly hard-fought 3-1 victory over Switzerland in the semifinal set up the latest clash of the women’s hockey titans. It also partially validated the coaching of Kevin Dineen, who took over weeks before the Games and finally got his first coaching win over the Americans.
“It’s well earned,” Dineen said of the shot for gold. “It didn’t just happen over the last two weeks, it’s happened over the last seven or eight months.”
Dineen’s faith in Wickenheiser has been rewarded during the tournament as she has provided the usual offensive force that she has throughout her career. So influential in the women’s game, she has played in every Olympics since the women’s version was introduced in the 1998 Nagano Games.
With five points in four games here, Wickenheiser now has 51 points over her Olympic career, more than any other player, male or female. The song may remain the same for a likely future hall of famer but the challenge never diminishes, even if the main opponent never seems to change.
The Americans are coming off a semifinal thrashing of Sweden in which they held an embarrassing 70-9 “edge” in shots on goal.
“We’re on the biggest stage for hockey outside of Canada, which will be great for the game, but no matter what, playing the U.S. for the gold never loses its magic,” Wickenheiser said. “These are the games we get pumped up for, the ones we’re waiting for all year.
“We are the two best teams in the sport, we push each other and the fans love it. It’s good for women’s hockey.”
GROW THE GAME
Hayley Wickenheiser appreciates the promise from IIHF president Rene Fasel, but was already convinced women's hockey had cemented its spot in the Olympics.
Fasel vowed Tuesday that the women's version would "never" be out of the Games, under his watch and beyond.
"I don't really worry about the future of our game in the Olympics," Wickenheiser said. "My biggest worry is that people only pay attention to our game every four years. My greatest hope is that people will follow the game more to see the progress that is going on.
"It's nice of (Fasel) to say that. We need that support, but we need to push the individual federations to do more."