There's No Real Olympic Hockey Rivalry Between the U.S. and Canada

To be fair, that could change this week. But Canada has been better for the last 90 years.
Petr David Josek / AP

For the second straight Winter Olympics, the U.S. and Canada are in each other’s way for hockey gold. The American and Canadian women face off in the gold medal game on Thursday at noon Eastern, while the men battle Friday in a semifinal match between tournament favorites.

The twin-bill North American throwdown has many people talking about a U.S.-Canada hockey rivalry being one of the best parts of these Winter Olympics. “If it seems like the USA-Canada Olympic rivalry is heated already, it might melt the ice by the end of the week,” trumpeted Bleacher Report’s Dan Levy. A video segment by USA Today’s Christine Brennan previewing Thursday’s Olympic action was titled “The Best Olympic Rivalry: USA-Canada in Women’s Hockey.” 

It’s true that the Olympic matchups between the U.S. and Canada have gotten more competitive, more dramatic, and more fierce in the last two decades. But a true rivalry has ebbs and flows—and for most of the last 90 years, Canada has owned the United States in Olympic hockey.

The Winter Olympics has included men’s ice hockey since 1920, and Canada began the “rivalry” by assertively seizing the upper hand. The Americans were riding high after a 29-0 shellacking of Switzerland in the quarterfinals, but the Canadians prevailed 2-0 on an April afternoon in Antwerp. “Dominion Team Penetrates American Defenses in Second Half,” blared a headline the following day from The New York Times, which devoted all of 27 words to the story.

For the next 36 years, Canada-U.S. was not a rivalry so much as our neighbors to the north opening a semi-annual can of whoopass on us. Through 1952, the Canadians were 5-0-2 (wins-losses-ties) against the American men, including a tie in 1932 that actually gave Canada the gold, thanks to the round-robin format at the time. The U.S. finally broke through in 1956 with a 4-1 win over Canada but fell short of the gold medal.

Then came 1960, when the U.S. finally won hockey gold in Squaw Valley, California. Though a 2-1 win over Canada was the key victory, the memorable American win came over the USSR. And after Squaw Valley, the Canadian reeled off five straight wins and a tie against the Americans in Olympic play. The toughest to take was a 5-2 Canadian win in the gold-medal game in 2002, on the Americans' home soil in Salt Lake City.

Even when the U.S. men have won against Canada, it hasn't been in the moments when it would have counted most. A breakthrough 5-3 U.S. victory during opening-round play at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver was quickly overshadowed by the heartbreak of the gold-medal game, when the Americans evened the score in the final minute of regulation only to see it slip away in overtime:

There may be a worse feeling for American hockey fans than watching Sidney Crosby score a gold medal-winning goal over the U.S. But I can’t think of one.

Outside of a four-day stretch in 1998, the U.S. women haven’t fared much better. The Americans won the first ever women’s hockey Olympic tournament in Nagano, beating the Canadians 7-4 in the opening round and 3-1 in the gold medal game.

Canada has not lost a women’s hockey game at the Olympics since then, winning three gold medals and going 19-0 overall. Two of the gold medal victories came over the U.S., including a 2-0 shutout in the 2010 final in Vancouver.

All told, that’s a 14-5-3 record for Canada hockey teams against the Americans in Olympic play, and 4-1 in gold medal matches. That’s the kind of “rivalry” the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox had from 1918 to 2004.

But all of that could change with two American wins on Thursday and Friday. The talent gap between the two countries has shrunk to almost nothing, thanks in part to the lifting of the Olympic ban on professional athletes and the increased reach of the NHL, the NCAA, and youth hockey in the U.S. This Olympics, the U.S. men in particular seem like the team to beat for gold, with a 4-0 record and 20-6 goal differential thus far. 

If the U.S. women beat Canada Thursday and the men do the same Friday, Canada will be shut out of hockey gold for the first time in 16 years. If the American men then were to win gold on Sunday (against either Sweden or Finland), the United States would become only the second nation to ever sweep the men’s and women’s hockey golds. (The first, of course, was Canada, and they did it twice: in 2002 and four years ago.) Then we would have ourselves a true rivalry—the old-fashioned, Lakers-Celtics, Alabama-Auburn kind, in which both sides win big games.

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Jake Simpson is a New York-based writer.

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