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Habs-Leafs. Yankees-Red Sox. Celtics-Lakers… Of all the great rivalries in North American sports, few could match the sheer intensity — even downright hatred — that fuelled the many gold-medal showdowns between the Canadian and U.S. women’s hockey teams over the past few decades.
Think of Hayley Wickenheiser’s enraged allegation that American players trampled a Canadian flag before the 2002 Olympic final in Salt Lake City. Or the Canadian players gleefully smoking cigars and chugging beer on the ice after capturing the gold in 2010 in Vancouver. Or the raw ecstasy and agony following Canada’s incredible comeback to win the classic 2014 Olympic title game in Sochi.
Since the inception of the women’s hockey world championship in 1990, Canada and the United States have met in 21 of the 22 finals. The rival superpowers have duopolized the Olympics too, squaring off in six of the seven gold-medal games since women’s hockey joined the program in 1998.
For the longest time, nothing mattered more to these teams than those once-a-year chances to beat their archrivals for gold on their sport’s biggest stages. But now, something else matters too.
As the Canadian and U.S. women prepare for tonight’s opener of the 2023-24 Rivalry Series — a seven-game barnstorming tour designed to showcase the teams between world championships and Olympics — it feels like the old hostilities have thawed just a bit as their business relationship continues to grow.
Their efforts finally paid off this summer when a group led by billionaire Los Angeles Dodgers owner Mark Walter bought out and folded the PHF and struck a labour deal with the PWHPA for the creation of a brand-new league. The since-named Professional Women’s Hockey League is set to launch in January with franchises in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Minnesota and the New York City area. After each club signed three foundational players (top salaries are reportedly around $80,000 US per year), the PWHL’s inaugural draft took place last month in Toronto, where tennis legend and equal-rights advocate Billie Jean King (an investor in the league) announced University of Minnesota star Taylor Heise as the No. 1 pick.
The PWHL’s first training camps open Wednesday — just four days after the second Rivalry Series game, which will be played at the Los Angeles Kings’ home arena on Saturday. Tonight’s series opener is at the Arizona Coyotes’ Mullett Arena. The series continues in mid-December with games in Kitchener, Ont., and Sarnia, Ont., before concluding in February in Saskatoon, Regina and, finally, Minnesota.
Last season, Canada lost the first three games before storming back to win the final four and take the series. But the U.S. got its revenge, and then some, in the world-title game in Brampton, Ont., in April, scoring four unanswered goals in the third period to beat Canada 6-3.
The PWHL, wisely, will break for international play, including the Rivalry Series and the world championship this April in upstate New York, where Canada and the U.S. are a great bet to meet again in the gold-medal game.
Surely, the players’ focus will be at least somewhat divided this season by the launch of their new league. And it could be hard for Canadians and Americans to summon as much contempt for each other now that they’re partners (and in some cases literal teammates) in such a critical venture for the future of women’s hockey. But my colleague Karissa Donkin, who does an excellent job covering women’s hockey for CBC Sports, told me that a Canada-U.S. showdown for the world title should remain just as intense.
Karissa also pointed out that the Rivalry Series will give us a look at some key developments on both teams. Canada’s three newcomers include defenceman Sophie Jaques, who succeeded Heise as the winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award (the Heisman Trophy of women’s hockey) last season for Ohio State. And, with No. 1 goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens out for the first two games due to injury, Emerance Maschmeyer and the younger Kristen Campbell could get a chance to show what they can do. On the American side, forward Laila Edwards, a University of Wisconsin sophomore who was the MVP of the 2022 U18 world championship, will become the first Black woman to play for the senior U.S. national team.