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Canada, U.S. set to renew women’s hockey rivalry, but times have changed with PWHPA

BRAMPTON, Ont. — Sarah Nurse concedes it was a little strange — at least to start.

Bitter rivals on the ice, women’s hockey players from Canada and the United States didn’t know much about each other off it.

Sure, they’d heard snippets and saw whatever was in the media. But the two powerhouses had little contact away from the rink.

A common goal on both sides of the border to leave their game in a better place brought them together through the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association and the Dream Gap Tour — a showcase circuit for the 2022-23 season that saw Canadians and Americans skate alongside each other in exhibition play.

The result was a cooling of tensions.

“I’d never, ever played with (U.S. captain) Hilary Knight … I’d only ever played against her,” said Nurse, a forward for Canada. “Being able to work with her and play with her has absolutely brought a whole different perspective. But definitely was weird at first. There’s definitely that friendship, that respect off the ice.

“But on the ice we’re still competitors.”

The feeling is mutual.

“We’ve become better friends in an unexpected way,” U.S. forward Alex Carpenter said. “But when we get on the ice it’s all business.”

That business will ramp right back up Monday when Canada and the U.S. meet in the teams’ final preliminary round game at the women’s world hockey championship.

“Every time a moment like this comes up, you reflect on how lucky you are to be a part of this rivalry,” Canadian forward Brianne Jenner said.

“And part of this team.”

The countries have steamed through their first three contests, and know they’re likely going to see each other again in a gold-medal showdown.

Canada ended the U.S. run of five straight world titles at the pandemic-delayed 2021 event in Calgary before capturing Olympic gold at the 2022 Games.

The Canadians then picked up a second consecutive victory at the worlds later that year in Denmark for the program’s third podium-topping performance in 12 months.

Head coach Troy Ryan said his team flipped a switch entering the 2021 tournament on home soil.

“Stopped focusing so much on our opposition and tried to look internally to see how we can make some improvements,” he said. “It’s tough when you’re in these events. Sometimes it’s easy to look past opponents and focus on the U.S. We’ve just decided to stop doing that. 

“We focus on ourselves.”

Nurse said Canada is better equipped to handle the emotion of big moments.

“In the past, you get down a goal and we just completely deflate,” she said. “Managing those highs and lows, especially in high-pressure situations like this, has been huge.”

There’s also a much bigger goal. In the past, especially during the epic Olympic battles, players would rarely utter a positive word about the other side.

That’s changed as the combatants work together away from the spotlight for their sport.

“When it’s time to go on the ice it’s a battle — there’s no question,” said Canadian star Marie-Philip Poulin. “Off the ice, there’s mutual respect. We’re all pushing for the same thing.”

The PWHPA, which has a stated goal of starting a professional league next season, has a number of the game’s best under its umbrella, including Poulin, Nurse and Knight.

The seven-team Premier Hockey Federation, which recently crowned the Toronto Six as Isobel Cup champion, has a handful of players sprinkled across the rosters in Brampton.

It’s not lost on the PWHPA players that national television audiences for marquee North American matchups like Monday are crucial in driving the narrative.

“We have to take every single opportunity we can to attract new fans and attract the viewership and the visibility,” Nurse said.

“It’s a great byproduct,” Jenner said of having more eyeballs pointed their way. “Hopefully they’ll see a great hockey game, and if there’s fans tuning in for the first time, they’ll be addicted and they’ll want more.”

U.S. defenceman Megan Keller said the common aim is to build a better future for the next generation.

“So that they can come out of college and have a sustainable professional league where everybody doesn’t have to work a nine-to-five and they can just be hockey players,” she said. “That’s all of our goals … hopefully we can continue to do that together.”

Jenner added “frenemies” is a good description of the current climate between Canada and the U.S. in women’s hockey.

“The rivalry hasn’t cooled down,” she said. “But there’s been partnerships, friendships off the ice. You have this idea of them because you only see them on the ice. That’s where they’re your enemies, but they’re great people. They have the same goals as us. They live the same lifestyle, make the same sacrifices, have the same aspirations.

“There’s a lot in common there.”

It’s just on hold at this tournament.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2023.


Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press