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Catharsis, at Last: U.S. Women’s Hockey Has Its Golden Moment

The latest installment in one of the best rivalries in sports delivered a shootout, a 3-2 American victory, and an all-time Olympic triumph that was 20 years in the making

The U.S. women’s hockey team celebrating on the rink Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Americans and Canadians usually get along well. Goods, people, and culture regularly cross our shared border — the largest undefended border in the world, as the (comforting, but no longer strictly accurate) saying goes. Sometimes we argue over food, politics, or the proper container for milk, but it’s amicable, like siblings wrestling on the living-room carpet.

Except in hockey. Particularly women’s hockey, where the United States and Canada stand head and shoulders above the rest of the world. The two countries have faced off in all 18 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships and five of six Olympic finals — a shocking U.S. semifinal loss to Sweden in the 2006 Turin Games is the only thing standing in the way of total historical North American domination of the sport.

For the first time since the inaugural women’s hockey tournament in 1998, the U.S. will walk away from the Olympics as gold medalists, following a 3–2 shootout win in the latest installment of one of the most intense rivalries in international sports. That intensity stems from factors that are as diverse as they are numerous. Canadians are as arrogant about hockey as Americans are about, well, basically everything else. Meanwhile, the existence of a bully to the north allows Americans to feel like they’re rooting for the underdog in a way that we rarely get to enjoy, especially in women’s sports. The last time these teams met with Olympic gold on the line, they put on an all-time hockey classic: The U.S. was up 2–0 with four minutes remaining in regulation, then allowed two goals and shot the puck off the post of an empty net before losing in overtime. Images of American players weeping on the ice in the aftermath of defeat became one of the defining memories of the 2014 Sochi Games, and of the U.S.-Canada rivalry.

That’s just one of dozens of high-stakes games the two countries have played over the past 20 years — imagine if the men’s national soccer teams of Brazil and Argentina only ever played each other in their most important events. Familiarity breeds contempt. Speaking of contempt, one of the constants of Team USA over the past decade has been the involvement of a pair of excitable identical twins, Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson and Monique Lamoureux-Morando. Here they are in the thick of a line brawl with Canada in a pre-Sochi tune-up.

“All heck is breaking loose again,” the announcer says in that clip. Wait, again? Yes. Here’s Monique running Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados two months earlier, sparking another line brawl.

Remember the Lamoureux twins. They’ll become important later.

Before the 2018 gold-medal game in South Korea on Thursday, the U.S. women’s team hadn’t beaten its rival at the Olympics since 1998, when it took the Canadians 7–4 in the six-team round robin, then again in the final by the score of 3–1. From 2002 to 2010, the U.S. and Canada were drawn into separate groups, though since 2014 they’ve met in group play under a new tournament format that places the best teams in the same pool and guarantees them passage to the knockout rounds. Since 2002, Canada has beat the U.S. in three gold-medal games and two group-play games, one in 2014 and one in 2018, the latter of which came last week when Canada eked out a 2–1 victory despite being outshot almost 2-to-1.

But Team USA has won gold in seven of the past eight IIHF World Championships, including a memorable 2017 tournament that they almost didn’t contest. In the lead-up to worlds, the senior national women’s team demanded the same pay and treatment as its male counterparts, and more investment in girls’ hockey. When USA Hockey balked, the players, led by captain Megan Duggan, staged a boycott. Whenever USA Hockey went looking for scabs, it generally found that the player it was trying to recruit had already spoken to Duggan or another Team USA veteran and was determined to hold the line. Eventually, the players and national federation reached an agreement, a huge victory for the team and women’s sports in general, and perhaps the most perfectly executed athlete strike in history. At worlds, the newly reconstituted Team USA went 5–0–0, including two wins over Canada, and outscored its opponents 28–5.

The first two periods of this gold-medal game were nothing like that. After peppering Canadian backup Geneviève Lacasse with 45 shots in group play, the Americans struggled to keep the puck in the offensive zone or clear it from their own defensive zone through two periods. Only Canadian indiscipline kept the Americans in the game: Canada was called for three penalties in the first period, and, on the third American power play, Hilary Knight deflected a Sidney Morin point shot past Szabados to put the U.S. up 1–0 against the run of play heading into the first intermission.

But Szabados, a 31-year-old who also backstopped Canada in the 2010 and 2014 gold-medal games, stopped the other 21 shots she faced in the first two periods, and her teammates quickly erased the American lead. Two minutes into the second period, Canadian forward Haley Irwin tipped a Blayre Turnbull saucer pass into the net to tie the game. Five minutes later, a bouncing puck jumped Morin’s stick in the neutral zone, leading to a Canadian rush and an open net for Marie-Philip Poulin.

Of course it had to be Poulin. After scoring two goals in each of the past two Olympic finals, Poulin entered these games in search of her third gold medal, and first as Canada captain, at the age of 26. Poulin’s goal stood to be her third tournament-winner in as many chances. It was poetic. Even after earning a moral victory in the group stage and racing to an early lead in the final, the Americans looked as if they were going to lose to Canada in Olympics, because that’s been the script for 20 years.

There’s nothing in team sports that matches the intensity of a close, high-stakes hockey game. The action in baseball and football is iterative, giving spectators a chance to breathe between plays. Basketball and soccer feature flowing, end-to-end action, as hockey does, but with relatively slow-moving, easily controllable balls. Hockey is played on ice, with an unpredictably bouncing puck being directed by the end of a curved stick. A game this chaotic and fast, and yet typically low-scoring, is capable of generating hazardous anxiety levels, particularly in the Olympics or NHL playoffs. It’s recreational tachycardia, as the goal that determines your team’s fortunes could come at any moment, without warning.

Into that state of anxiety, hockey introduces violence — and for all the talk about fighting, the real violence of hockey is the near-constant low-level pushing, shoving, stick-tapping, and mid-ice colliding. That’s true even in the women’s international game, where body checking is not allowed, let alone fighting. The line between stick-checking and slashing, or jockeying for position and interference, is thin and often changes depending on what a given referee sees or which team you’re rooting for. Therefore, to watch hockey is to feel slightly aggrieved at each one of the hundreds of physical confrontations that take place each game and significantly aggrieved every time a call doesn’t go your team’s way.

Some people just can’t get into hockey. They’re probably better off.

Eventually, these grievances and moments of panic can’t be contained, and something causes the potato to explode in the microwave. On Thursday, that potato was Poulin’s hit on American star Brianna Decker. It was an illegal hit by women’s IIHF play standards. It was an illegal hit, most likely suspension-worthy, by NHL rules. It would have been an illegal hit in football. Canada took six penalties in the game; this wasn’t one of them.

How the refs missed this will go down as one of the great mysteries in sports, but the hit and non-call changed the game. Now, not only was Canada ahead, but Szabados was stopping everything, and Poulin — of course it had to be Poulin — could deliver flying elbows in front of the goal with impunity. If the U.S. couldn’t win gold, then maybe a Lamoureux could at least answer with a flying elbow to one of Canada’s stars.

Wanting to repay violence with violence is an unworthy desire, no matter how often hockey fans feel it, and it’s important to remember that it isn’t the most satisfying means of revenge. That opportunity came with a little more than six minutes left in regulation, when Canada screwed up a line change and left Lamoureux-Morando one-on-one with Szabados.

Not that it looked like it was going to matter. Szabados’s glove had been too quick for the Americans, her positioning too perfect, her pads sealing to the posts as she traversed from one side of the net to the other. Throughout the third period, Szabados appeared to be growing like the waxing moon, taking up more and more of the net as the game wore on. There was nowhere to shoot.

Lamoureux-Morando, a right-handed shot, went glove-side on the left-handed-catching Szabados and beat her to tie the game. Suddenly, it was 2–2.

From that moment on, the rink tilted, and, for the first time since Canada took the lead, the United States had the initiative, translating defense to attack with ease and peppering Szabados with rubber. And the swagger of the team that successfully took on its own federation and stockpiled world championships returned. When Canada’s Emily Clark went to the box for a tripping penalty late in the third period, American players responded with sarcastic stick taps, a Bronx cheer for the referees after the no-call on Poulin’s hit.

For the rest of the third period and overtime, the Americans dominated possession, and star-making individual performances became obvious. Speedy forward Kendall Coyne, all of 5-foot-2, outraced the Canadians to puck after puck. Defenseman Lee Stecklein seemed everywhere. In IIHF play, teams dress 20 skaters, rather than the NHL’s 18, and overtime is 4-on-4; despite the larger rosters and smaller playing units, Stecklein played a team-high 8:51 of the 20-minute overtime period, denying Canadian clearance attempts on the expansive international ice, often alone as her defensive partner pinched to put pressure on Szabados.

Back in the American end, goalie Maddie Rooney, a 20-year-old Olympic rookie from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, continued to blunt the Canadian offense. In the first period, she preserved a scoreless tie with a sprawling, full-extension save that recalled legendary Czech goalie Dominik Hasek. While Rooney wasn’t as busy in overtime, she did backstop one last American penalty kill to preserve the tie and send the game to a shootout.

Hockey purists, by and large, hate shootouts because they reduce a game — in this case, a gold-medal game — to a test of which team is better on a breakaway. But while NHL shootouts are perfunctory and often clumsy, this was an electrifying showcase of skill and daring, from Gigi Marvin’s bundled-in opening goal for the U.S. to top-shelf snapshots by Canada’s Meghan Agosta and Team USA’s Amanda Kessel. Canadian forward Mélodie Daoust had the audacity to attempt the Postage Stamp move. The Postage Stamp move is so named because Peter Forsberg used it to win a gold medal for Sweden in the 1994 Olympics and was immortalized on a stamp in his home country.

Daoust not only broke out the Postage Stamp move, but also got Rooney to fall on her back like a stranded turtle, sliding the puck past the American goaltender.

IIHF shootouts are five rounds long, and if the game hasn’t been decided by then, the shootout goes to sudden death, and coaches are given the option to repeat shooters. American coach Robb Stauber declined that, sending Lamoureux-Davidson, who hadn’t shot yet, out for round six. The move she used, which she called “Oops! I Did It Again,” turned the unbeatable Szabados’s bones to jelly.

That left Agosta with one chance to score and keep the game going. At somewhere past 2 in the morning on the East Coast, Agosta tried to go low on Rooney, who closed her pads to snuff out the attempt. As Rooney stood, the puck remained on the ice and started to slide slowly toward the open goal. Rooney bent down and flicked it away with her trapper, sealing America’s first women’s hockey gold medal since she was 7 months old.

The teeth-chattering intensity of a great hockey game doesn’t subside quickly. Not if it has 20 years of Olympic baggage attached, and certainly not if, by some superhuman feat of emotional and physical strength, you were obliged to play in it rather than watch it from the fetal position in your pajamas. It fades gradually, then flows away, leaving you a wobbly-legged mess of emotion and relief.

That’s why Marvin, Duggan, and others were moved to tears on the medal stand in Sochi, and why Poulin and many of her teammates reacted the same way when faced with a similar set of circumstances in South Korea. It’s why you invest the emotional energy in loving or hating people you’ll never meet and shouting at their good or bad fortune from halfway across the world. And for these Americans, winning gold so dramatically in their first attempt after the heartbreak of Sochi gives them a leg up on their rival for the first time in a generation, and at a time when their influence is greater than ever.

A great hockey game is a momentary thrill, but so is being electrocuted, and people don’t do that for fun. Without that catharsis at the end, a game like this wouldn’t be worth staying up to watch, much less hating your neighbor over.