By Steve Keating
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – For four years the United States women’s ice hockey team were haunted by the memory of an excruciating overtime loss to bitter rivals Canada in the Sochi Olympic final.
That pain will now be Canada’s after the U.S. exorcised their demons with a 3-2 shootout win over their northern neighbors in Pyeongchang on Thursday, in a breathless showdown that confirmed the rivalry as one of the Olympics’ greatest.
The anguish written on the faces expressed something a generation of Canadian hockey players had never felt before – the agony of defeat.
Although the manner of the loss was cruel enough, the pain was amplified by the fact that it had been two decades and four Olympics since Canadian women have experienced anything other than the joy of celebrating gold.
“When you don’t hear your anthem standing on that blueline it’s a feeling you are never going to forget and you are going to use as motivation going forward,” Canadian forward Natalie Spooner said.
“It is not a good feeling at all, you work for four years for this and you dream about it every day and when it doesn’t come true it’s a pretty tough pill to swallow.
“I know everyone is going to remember this moment and how much it sucks and use it for motivation for four years from now.”
While the Americans, who last won ice hockey gold at the 1998 Nagano Games, remembered how to celebrate wildly, throwing their equipment into the air as they hugged and embraced each other, the Canadians seemed overwhelmed by unfamiliar feelings.
They sat anchored to their bench with heads slumped and when they did look up tears poured down their faces.
The Canadians received their silver medals with a blank stare, Jocelyne Larocque removing hers as soon as it was placed around her neck.
“It was just hard,” Larocque said. “I mean we were going for gold, we were chasing that gold medal.”
Since Nagano, Canada and the United States have held a duopoly on Olympic women’s ice hockey, contesting every final except one when Sweden crashed the party at the 2006 Turin Olympics to take silver.
The most gut-wrenching of those U.S. defeats came in Sochi when, leading 2-0 with under four minutes to play, Canada scored twice to force overtime.
Marie-Philip Poulin then did what she has become notorious for, putting a knife through the heart of Team USA by notching the overtime winner.
There were 10 returning players from that team in Pyeongchang, the pain as fresh as the day it occurred.
The loss remained an open wound and the Americans took every opportunity to remind the 13 new players that this was something they never want to experience.
“Ten players were with us in 2014,” Team USA coach Robb Stauber said. “They know what it feels like to be on the other side.
“I’m thrilled not only for those 10 players but the entire team that they have had a different experience.
“That was our goal coming in to the Olympics – to fight really hard for a different result and I’m very, very happy for our players.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)