GANGNEUNG, South Korea — What does Brianne Jenner expect out of the fourth Olympic final to feature Canada and the United States? The veteran forward laughed, and her eyebrows shot up.
“A battle,” said the Oakville, Ont.-born centreman. “A battle for the ages, as usual. I mean, it’s one of the best rivalries in hockey.”
Well, Jenner, with all due respect, you’re understating it. This Canada-U.S. women’s hockey rivalry is one of the best in sport, period. And it happens Wednesday at 11:10 p.m. ET, the showdown we all knew was coming: The reigning Olympic champions (Canada) against the reigning world champions (America). Canada has won the last four Olympic Games. The Americans have won the last three world championships.
Head coach Laura Schuler put it best after both teams punched their tickets with 5-0 semifinal thrashings, when she called her Canadian team “lucky” to have played the Americans as many times as they have. “It’s nice to see that the final game is going to be that way,” said Schuler, who played on the Olympic team in 1998, the only time Canada had to settle for silver, and the only time the Americans won gold. “I think it’s awesome at the world’s biggest stage for everybody to watch two powerhouses go at it.”
It is. The last time these two teams met, last week in the round robin, it ended a 2-1 win for Canada and when the buzzer went there were 11 players in or around the Canadian net. Only two of them — American Kelly Pannek, and Canadian Jennifer Wakefield — didn’t have at least part or all of their body in Canada’s crease or net, but they were real close. Punches were thrown, shoves were given and taken, and afterwards players dismissed it as a “typical” net-front battle.
In other words, expect that and a little more when these teams meet with the gold medal on the line.
“I think you often like to say, ‘It comes down to who wants it more,’” said Jenner, the 26-year-old alternate captain, who will be playing in her second Olympic final. “There’s no question that both teams want this as bad as possible.
“It’s going to come down to who executes, who’s able to perform in the moment and who stays disciplined. And probably who wins the special-teams battles, so we’re going to be focused on those things, and ready to go.”
Canada has beaten the Americans in their last five matchups, which have nearly all been one-goal games. “If the score has been more than one goal, it’s not really that indicative of it,” said Wakefield, who’s also playing in her second Olympic final. In other words, it’s always as close as it can be. “I think we’re going to get a good battle, good viewing for the fans,” she continued, “and hopefully we come to play.”
This Canadian team has been coming to play of late, at least results-wise. They came together last May, reeling after three straight world championship losses to the Americans. “We kind of went back to the drawing board, we worked our tails off, off-ice, we changed our systems a little bit,” Jenner said, which she believes led to those wins in that pre-game series.
“It doesn’t mean anything going into tomorrow, but we certainly are going to take that experience and build off it, because as I said, we do feel confident in where we’re at.”
Jenner figured big on this stage four years ago, in Sochi — she got that epic Canadian comeback started. There was 3:27 to go, and Canada was down 2-0. Then Jenner’s harmless-looking shot deflected off an American knee and in, they pulled goalie Shannon Szabados, American Kelli Stack cleared the puck from her end and it trickled toward the net and then hit the Canadian post. It was captain Marie-Philip Poulin who tied it up to force overtime, and then later scored the winner to give Canada a fourth straight Olympic gold medal.
“The hockey gods were there, or something,” Poulin said, in a pre-Olympic interview. “Wow.”
Ahead of that game, Poulin, then 22 and not yet this team’s captain, said her mind was racing with ‘What-if?’ scenarios. “The whole night before I was like, what if the refs are bad? If they score first? What if we’re leading? What if we’re losing?” she said. “The way it happened? That was not one of my what-ifs.”
That game could be impossible to top, in terms of the ending and the drama and the joy and the heartbreak. A couple of unforgettable scenes: Megan Duggan, the American captain, both then and now, speaking to media with tears streaming down her face, standing there until everyone ran out of questions. And Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser nearly limping through the interview area, having just won a record-tying fourth Olympic gold medal on a broken foot.
Jenner isn’t sure that game is possible to top, but she does know one thing: “I hope it doesn’t go quite like that — my mom will have a heart attack,” she said, with a laugh. “That was a fairy tale ending, there’s no other way you can describe it.”
The difference at the Olympics is of course the importance of the moment, the fact these teams only get a shot at it once every four years. “It’s the biggest stage,” Jenner said. “I mean, on one hand it’s like any other hockey tournament and on the other hand it’s like our Stanley Cup, right? It’s what we dream about since we were little girls.
“We’re going to enjoy that experience when it comes. But once the puck is dropped, you’re on auto-pilot. You train so many hours for this that your body knows what to do and takes over.”
Then Jenner is asked, isn’t it great that one of the best rivalries in sport is between a pair of women’s hockey teams?
“Yeah, absolutely,” she said. “I mean, why not two women’s teams, right?”