Funny thing, this United States-Canada hockey rivalry.
You've got the Canadian men looking to reclaim their bragging rights, which they lost to the Americans a year and a half ago. You've got Canada's fans looking for retribution for the U.S.'s Gary Suter, who knocked out Team Canada star Paul Kariya two weeks earlier. And you've got the women's teams from the two nations itching to initiate a historic face-off.And all of this comes to you a half a world away, in a Japanese setting very foreign to the sport's never-so-intense North American border wars - the Big Hat and Aqua Wing arenas in Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. For at least a day, the Canadians hold the rivalry's upper hand, with Team Canada soundly defeating Team USA 4-1 in the final round of men's preliminary play Monday at Big Hat. Keith Primeau scored two goals and Joe Sakic added a goal and two assists for Team Canada, while goalkeeper Patrick Roy stopped 30 of 31 shots for the undefeated Canadians.
The victory only starts to avenge the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship loss that Canada suffered in a three-game title series to the United States. The American victory sent shockwaves through the Great White North and resulted in a much-debated shakeup of the Canadian national team going into the Olympics (Mark Messier is nowhere to be seen around Nagano).
Also absent is Kariya, who suffered a concussion when checked by Suter in an NHL game at the start of the month. Suter was suspended by the NHL but is playing for the United States in Nagano, and the Canadian fans at Big Hat booed every time he touched the puck in hopes he might take a retaliatory hit.
And Kariya - a potent scorer of Japanese heritage whose injury kept him from joining Team Canada for the Nagano Games - is sorely missed by the fans. However, the sign saying "Paul Kariya, you're with us in heat" held by a pair of young Japanese fans obviously loses something in translation.
Meanwhile, the two-nation rivalry has crossed gender lines, with the United States and Canada meeting Tuesday night for the inaugural women's ice hockey Olympic medal. The two adversaries have squared off 14 times since September, with the series split 7-all and eight games decided by one goal. The United States enjoyed the most recent victory, a 7-4 triumph Saturday at Aqua Wing.
With that kind of recent hockey history in mind, one can see how Monday's victory put the Canadians back in the forefront of their much-beloved national sport. Call it a morale victory.
"There is definitely a rivalry there," said Primeau. "I don't know if we put any extra effort in because of the outcome of the World Cup. This game was important for our team to win. We wanted to be 3 and 0 and seeded first going into the next round of elimination games."
With the two rosters looking much like a veritable Who's Who of NHL All-Stars - Gretzky, Hull, Roy, Richter, Sakic, Modano, Lindros, Tkachuk, Shanahan, et al. - the capacity crowd of 10,076 included including IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch and even Elvis himself (that would be Elvis Strojko, Canada's two-time silver-medalist figure skater).
Team USA missed a chance early - a "Great One," so to speak - when Wayne Gretzky's interference penalty gave the Americans a power play they squandered midway through the first period.
If that wasn't enough futility, the United States received a 5-3 advantage for a minute and 40 seconds when Canada's Joe Sakic and Rob Zamuner had overlapping penalties. Despite an offensive attack that resembled a police academy pistol range, the United States couldn't get the puck past Roy. To add insult to inability, Team Canada not only killed the power play but scored just seconds after the penalties ended with its Pen(alty) Pals combo of Gretzky-to-Sakic-to-Zamuner for the 1-0 lead with 16:30 gone.
"Maybe the turning point of the hockey game was the 5-on-3," said U.S. coach Ron Wilson. "We hit a couple of posts on the shots from Brett Hull, and he (Roy) made a couple of great saves. Had we scored during that 5-on-3, we would have had a 1-nothing lead and fully believed in ourselves."
In the second period, a more consistent U.S. attack was repelled by Roy, including another U.S. power play. In fact, 12 seconds into the man disadvantage and 13:37 into the period, Canada scored as Primeau tapped in the puck after U.S. goalie Mike Richter blocked a swooping Steve Yzerman.
Sakic added his own follow goal off a missed shot by former Salt Lake Golden Eagle Theoron Flue-ry as Canada upped its lead to 3-0 in the final two minutes of the second. And Primeau scored his second goal six minutes into the third period, completing the crossing pass from Mark Recchi before diving over a sprawling Richter.
Brett Hull broke Roy's shutout bid as he looped around in front of the goal and shoveled the puck past Roy for the sole U.S. score with 14:04 gone in the third.
"Patrick Roy did a fantastic job," gushed Canadian forward Eric Lindros after the game. "He kept us in the game in the first and second period, especially when we had to kill the penalties."
U.S. captain Chris Chelios put the loss in perspective. "We are not frustrated and not disappointed," said the defenseman. "We played our best game so far in this tournament, and we lost against a very good team."
Besides the loss, Team USA lost its bragging rights to Canada at least for the next several days, until the quarterfinals begin Wednesday. And if for some reason the North American neighbors don't meet in the men's gold-medal game as expected, Canada may get to enjoy its claim to U.S. shame even longer.