It was a sea of red and white, faces painted with the maple leaf-like Canadian Hockey Association logo.
Fans were waving Canadian flags enthusiastically. GM Place was charged with the electricity of international competition as the two best women’s teams in the world came to meet in the “Final Face-off”.
The 3-2 loss of Team Canada to Team USA on Tuesday, Jan. 8 was disappointing only because it could have gone the other way so easily. Team Canada was on fire, outshooting Team USA 32-18.
At the morning game-day skate, Canadian head coach Danielle Sauvageau had referred to Team USA’s powerplay as, “the best in the world – men’s or women’s team.”
It was that strong powerplay that brought the USA the first goal of the game. With Lori Dupuis in the penalty box, Karyn Bye’s shot from the point found the net behind Canadian goaltender Kim St.-Pierre.
However, Canada dominated much of the play in the first two periods with Team USA’s head coach Ben Smith describing the game as, “the antithesis of the previous games we’ve played.”
He went on to refer to the game as a “battle” and said, “we snuck one out tonight.”
Hayley Wickenheiser, described by most as the best female hockey player in the world, scored the tying goal for Canada at the 12:43 mark of the second period.
Most of the evening’s penalties came in the second period as well, with both teams trying to get the upper hand on their opponent. Vancouver Griffins’ captain and local favourite Nancy Drolet had a couple of great shots and her line, which included Danielle Goyette and Dana Antel, fought hard to keep the Americans bottled up in their own end.
The Canadians quickly jumped out to a one-goal lead as Jennifer Botterill scored at the 1:18 mark of the third period. The fans were loud and proud, cheering their team with gusto.
Sauvageau had rolled four lines during the first and second periods, but shortened her bench for the third. Smith continued to go with all four lines and his strategy seemed to pay off in the final stages.
The tying goal for Team USA was a fluky bounce with the puck ricocheting off a shin pad and into the net. Then, just over one minute later Krissy Wendell took advantage of a bad clearing pass and buried the puck behind St.-Pierre for the winning marker.
After the game, Smith talked of each game in the series having “its own identity” and said that the USA “took advantage of opportunities.”
In looking at the winning record of the USA over Canada Smith said, “you (the media) will talk a lot about these games, but there are no medals being awarded.”
Smith and his team are looking forward to a month of “down-time” in Lake Placid, New York as they prepare for the Olympic tournament.
This year, the format has changed and there will be an interlocking game schedule. “At the ’98 Olympics,” said Smith, “ we won six games in a row. With the crossover, our Olympic tournament game will be epic.”
Despite the disappointment of losing once again, Sauvageau said, “this is the best game the team has played so far.”
But Sauvageau knows there is a lot more to do. “We have to get over this eight game result and build on the positives.”
In interview after the morning skate and again after the game, the coach hinted that there was a possibility that the roster announced as the Olympic team might change before the team reaches Salt Lake City.
“We have to go back and analyze the components,” she said. “If we need to make a change, we will.”
Still, she and her players believe that they can win gold in Salt Lake City. “Anything I’ve asked of this team, they have done. They are hard-working athletes who give all they have.”
Drolet echoed her coach’s thoughts. “At the beginning of August, the coach asked us to believe in the system—the plan—and this team believes in that plan and in each other. It’s hard for people who see only one game, but we saw progress and it was really encouraging. There is no doubt in our minds that we’re right there. We will bring back gold.”
Asked about the challenges, Drolet told a story, “A few weeks ago, a lady with cancer came to our dressing room. She believes in us. Life has so many challenges and meeting a challenge like that shows true character of a champion. I’m playing for her.”
Wickenheiser talked of challenge, too. “The game was so close, but you can’t dwell on that, you just have to get back on your horse and keep going.”
When asked about the losing streak Wickenheiser said, “I don’t think I’ve ever lost eight games straight to anyone in my hockey career. We humbly take the underdog role.”
Both players talked about the fans. “I love playing in Vancouver,” said Wickenheiser.
Drolet added, “it’s an amazing feeling, you know the fans are on the edge of their seats. We will remember that support when we go to Salt Lake City and we will fight until the end.”
Team Canada captain Cassie Campbell gave her team a message at the end of the game.
“Remember how you feel right now,” Campbell then told the media, “there’s no panic, we still believe. This was a close game and we battled hard. We know we have to play strong defensively.”
She also talked about being the underdog going into the Olympics. “They are the defending Olympic champions, we have nothing to lose.”
Campbell added, “When I look into their eyes I can see belief in everyone on this team.”
Both Drolet and Wickenheiser talked about “sticking together.” “We have to stick together, every line has to play well on every shift,” said Wickenheiser.
That sums it up, to win gold at the Olympics, Team Canada will have to play at its very best every time they hit the ice.