NHL

Canada-U.S. women's hockey rivalry thrives on ice, but there's unity off it

The success of the Rivalry Series and the inclusion of a 3-on-3 women's game at the recent NHL all-star weekend has rekindled hopes for women's hockey. Canadian players like Marie-Philip Poulin see a flicker of light at the end of a dark tunnel.

Recent signs of progress giving hope of rekindling the game's aspirations of growth

Team USA's Hilary Knight shushes the Vancouver crowd after scoring against Canada in the Americans' 3-1 win on Wednesday. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Hilary Knight wasn't making any apologies.

The American forward introduced a little attitude into the Rivalry Series by putting her fingers to her lips and shushing the Rogers Arena crowd after scoring into an empty net to give the U.S. a 3-1 win over Canada's national women's team Wednesday night in Vancouver.

Knight, who also assisted on the U.S.'s winning goal, said the gesture was payback for some comments directed at the American team after they lost the gold medal final to Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games.

"I was saving that in my back pocket," she said.

"I had some back and forth after the gold medal loss with some fans up here. We were told to go back to our country and die. I took it pretty personally. It's salt from 10 years ago."

Defenceman Jocelyne Larocque, who scored Canada's lone goal, shrugged when asked about Knight's celebration.

"It is what it is," she said. "Let's just say I'm happy she's not on my team."

The Americans take a 3-1 lead into Saturday's final match of the five-game series at the Honda Centre in Anaheim.

As much as centre Brianne Jenner wants Canada to end the series against the Americans on a winning note, she also is focused on the big picture of women's hockey.

WATCH | Hilary Knight leads U.S. over Canada:

United States defeats Canada 3-1 with Hayley Scamurra's go-ahead goal in 3rd period. 1:02

"This year we don't have a lot of games," said the Oakville, Ont., native who has scored 11 goals and 22 points in 53 games with the national team. "These are our games and people are watching.

"These are some of the most important games some of us may ever play in our career, and it's not even in a world championship or Olympics. After the all-star game people are watching. They are watching to see what the top female players can do. We are hoping we can gain some new fans from this."

When the Canadian Women's Hockey League folded last year after 12 seasons it left the U.S.-based National Women's Hockey League as the only female league in North America.  Some CWHL players fostered hard feeling toward the NWHL because of 2016 salary cuts.

Players from Canada, the U.S. and Europe banded together to create the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association with the hope the NHL would take a hand in forming a women's league.

Commissioner Gary Bettman has been cool toward the NHL funding a female league, but the inclusion of a three-on-three women's game at the recent NHL all-star weekend has rekindled hopes.

Canadian players like Marie-Philip Poulin see a flicker of light at the end of a dark tunnel.

"We're working on it," said the Beauceville, Que., native, part of Canada's gold-medal team in 2010. "I think it's going to happen eventually.

"I think we need patience, all of us. We believe in our product. After the all-star weekend I think it was great, positive feedback we had. We have to keep that momentum. Using the NHL platform was huge for us."

Without a league to call their own, the country's top women players have tried to fill the void with mini-camps and exhibition games.

For Jenner, it's making the best of a bad situation.

"It's different," she said. "You don't have the ups and downs of a regular season, so I would be lying if I say it hasn't been a challenge.

"We have made the most of this opportunity. We have created some amazing momentum. The girls that represented us at the NHL all-star game did a fantastic job. We're playing exhibition games and they are at great pace and great level."

Following years of feast the Canadian women's program is experiencing some famine.

Canada's streak of four consecutive gold medals ended with a 3-2 shootout loss to the United States at the 2018 Olympics.

Hilary Knight, right, and teammate Natalie Darwitz receive their silver medals at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics after losing to Canada in the championship game. (Getty Images)

The women's last world championship title was in 2012. In the five years the championship has been played since, Canada lost to the U.S. in the final four times.

Last year, Canada was upset by Finland and had settle for bronze after beating Russia.

"It's been a while," said Poulin, who has 37 points in 63 national team games. "The last world championship and the last Olympics we struggled a little bit."

Canada opened the Rivalry Series in December losing 4-1 in Hartford, Conn., and 2-1 in Moncton. That resulted in Troy Ryan replacing Perry Pearn as head coach.

Pearn, who was named head coach prior to the 2018-19 season, had a 10-7 record but was 2-6 against the U.S.

Ryan, who was an assistant with the women's team since 2016, won his first game as head coach when Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 in overtime Monday night in Victoria. He doesn't expect a major overhaul of the team before this year's world championships, which are being held in Halifax in April.

"I think the biggest thing to understand is you don't have to put too big a stamp on it early," said Ryan, a native of  Spryfield, N.S., who played at the University of New Brunswick and coached junior hockey in the Maritimes.

"We had a pretty good foundation. Perry taught a lot of great things and a lot of great concepts. For me, it was maybe just opening it up a little offensively."

The outcome of the Rivalry Series is no longer in doubt, but Ryan said that won't change the passion the Canadians take into the Saturday's game.

"I don't think we would ever go into the game against the U.S. and treat it like an exhibition game," he said. "It's a rivalry and it's still part of the Rivalry Series. Our focus shifts from trying to win the Rivalry Series to trying to prepare for the world championships.

"I think the intensity and mentality will still be there."

About the Author

Jim has written about sports in Canada for more than 40 years for The Canadian Press, CBC Sports, CFL.ca and Swimming Canada. He has covered eight Olympic Games and three Paralympics. He was there the night the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup and has covered 12 Grey Cups.

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