As per the usual, the U.S. women’s hockey team lost to their bitter rivals, Canada, in the Winter Olympics on Thursday.
It was a nervy 2-1 affair ending in a blizzard of shots on the Canadian net and, at the very death, a short brawl. America carried much of the play, the possession, the quality chances and had twice as many shots.
Canada did just two things better than the U.S., and both were goals. That’s why they play the game on ice rather than in a computer simulation.
This contest didn’t mean anything in regards to the standings. The U.S. and Canada were already guaranteed automatic entry to the semifinal stage. We’d tell you who they’re playing, but neither team seemed to care, so the rest of us should also save ourselves the trouble.
(This is where a sportswriter is supposed to insert a face-saving qualifier like “Barring disaster …” or “Almost certainly guaranteed …” but this tournament has proved that the gulf in talent between North America and the rest of the world remains at Grand Canyon proportions. So no.)
The only way in which Thursday’s game did matter was in terms of the mind games the two teams play with each other. Or rather, the ones the U.S. seems to be playing with itself.
Afterward, the Americans came out doing their best Tony Robbins impression – all Awaken the Giant Within and will to power. If you’d arrived at the post-game interview stage without knowing the result, you’d have thought for sure America won this one.
“Overall, we played great,” said American forward Kendall Coyne. “We know that. They know that.”
“I have no doubt our team will be rewarded for that type of energy and effort,” said her coach, Robb Stauber.
And most tantalizingly for the social-media sadists, Amanda Kessel: “I think we put some doubt in the Canadians’ minds.”
This is a new one: an American team (any one of them) trying to pull on the Underdog cape and flounce around in public in it.
If Kessel’s comment was meant to goad, it didn’t catch much traction.
Canada’s Haley Irwin, in full, on the ‘Do you feel doubt?’ question: “No.”
When it was conveyed to her teammate Natalie Spooner, she said, “Doubt in our minds? About?”
Spooner wasn’t playing at being confused for laughs. She was actually confused.
So if this effort at agit-prop worked – ‘We didn’t hit all those posts because we missed. That was a warning’ – it wasn’t showing.
In fact, it probably works the other way around. The U.S. was the better team on Thursday. Eight times out of ten, they win that game. So, they must be asking themselves, why do we keep losing?
At every other tournament, there is not much to choose from between these two. They win some; we win some; together, we win it all. The silverware split is almost dead even.
But the results are bizarrely lopsided at the Games. The Canadian women have so much Olympic swagger, they’re in danger of cracking a hip.
Team captain Marie-Philip Poulin was six years old the last time Canada lost a game at this competition – the gold-medal match in Nagano twenty years ago. The outrageous manner in which they came back on the U.S. in the Sochi final four years ago must bolster Canada’s belief that they are a team of infinite destiny.
Some of this must be down to talent and that newly unpopular term, mental toughness. A good deal of it may have to do with the fact that the Canadian team lives and trains together for six solid months leading into an Olympics.
Also, in sports terms, they get the benefit of an extremely narrow focus. Canada’s goal occurs only once every four years. Everything else is meaningless. And they know years ahead of time exactly whom they have to go through to get it.
Years ago, this rivalry was famously heated. The players genuinely did not like each other. It was considered bad form for anyone on one team to befriend someone on the other. Hard words passed between them all the time, and then there is the question of the Canadian flag that may or may not have been used as carpeting in an American dressing room.
That animus has been diluted in recent years by familiarity. Many of these opponents now play together on NCAA or pro teams. Two former U.S. and Canadian team captains are married. Since they have so few real peers in the hockey world and share a common culture, it’s understandable that the U.S. and Canada would naturally gravitate to each other.
If that détente has been put off for these two weeks, only one team is doing it right.
After losing on Thursday, the U.S. was ragged and downcast. The only players who could manage a smile were the ones who had to go on camera. Everyone else shuffled into the back with their heads down.
Their coach, Stauber, was talking just a little too loudly about how pleased he was and how great things were going and yadda yadda yadda.
As he spoke, his own players had to walk by him. The monologue was meant for them, not us.
And then there’s the matter of Kessel. She wasn’t talking to Canada. She was talking to herself.
When you start going on about the doubt you’ve put in someone else’s mind, you are projecting. You’re referring to your own doubt, which is why the word “doubt” is front of mind.
You can’t imagine Mikael Kingsbury or Mikaela Shiffrin speaking about someone else’s doubt. Because they know in their bones that if they do their jobs right, they’ll win. The true confidence of a gold medalist is not avoiding talking about the other guy, but never feeling the urge to do so.
Canada’s got that part down. No hard words were said. No bulletin board material provided. The American team was benignly neglected, as if they were tangential to the story of Canada’s hand-in-hand, gold-medal journey.
On the fight at the end, Canadian coach Laura Schuler was delighted: “It’s good to see. It’s part of the rivalry. It’s a strong, healthy one.”
It was a wry, generous thing to say. Schuler laughed as she said it. She’s plainly having fun.
You know who talks like that? Someone who actually believes they’re going to win, rather than someone who’s trying to convince themselves.