Border War Brewing for the Olympics
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Kacey Bellamy and Courtney Birchard were hockey teammates and close friends at the University of New Hampshire. The friendship endures, Bellamy said, “but we definitely know our boundaries. We’re not afraid to mix it up with each other on the ice, absolutely.”
Bellamy plays for the United States and Birchard for Canada in a rivalry that will be unsurpassed in intensity and expectation in February at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia. One team or the other has won every Olympic gold medal and world championship awarded in women’s hockey.
“Right now, the rivalry keeps our sport alive,” Gillian Apps, a Canadian forward, said.
Respect also comes with an edginess that led to a rare brawl last month after an American forward violated a cardinal rule and skated into Canada’s goaltender.
“We really don’t like each other,” Bellamy, an American defenseman, said. “I’m going to throw it out there.”
Women’s hockey prohibits body checking and has established its distinctiveness with speed, stick handling, fluidity and finesse. Smaller players retain a chance to excel. But as players have grown bigger, faster and stronger, more fit and competitive, a hybrid game has evolved that increasingly embraces muscular assertiveness.
Players are continually pushing the limits of permissible contact.
“We send a message to the world to prove that, yeah, we can hit,” American forward Lyndsey Fry said. “We’re not going to go out there and open-ice hit someone; that’s not allowed. But we can throw our bodies around. We can get really gritty in the corners. When somebody throws me into the boards a little bit, it’s not cheap play. It’s hockey.”
Refereeing, though, has remained inconsistent. The boundaries of allowable hitting seem to vary from game to game. And unlike other levels of hockey, the international women’s game is policed by only one referee and two linesmen instead of two referees and two linesmen.
“We have it at every other level but women’s international hockey,” said Katey Stone of Harvard, who coaches the United States Olympic team. “I don’t understand that.”
A second referee is being considered for the 2018 Olympics, Stone said. One concern of international hockey officials is that the pool of available referees is too shallow.
“I don’t know,” Stone said. “There’s a lot at stake and there’s a lot that gets missed.
“That’s human error,” she said. “It’s everywhere. It’s not going to be fair. The key for us is, we’ve got to keep making our success happen.”
In rehearsal for Sochi, the United States and Canada will play seven times, and then at least once at the Olympics. So far, Canada, the defending Olympic champion, has a 3-0 edge in these warm-ups, including a 4-2 victory last week here at the Four Nations Cup.
“I think, to some degree, we give them more respect than we would like, at times, and then it swirls into a game of hesitation for us,” Stone said.
The Canadians have employed a calculated physicality to temper the American speed, quickness and pressure. Jayna Hefford, a Canadian forward seeking to play in her fifth Olympics, said: “They have a lot of skilled players. We certainly don’t want to let them do whatever they want with the puck.”
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