Gloves are off

PAUL FRIESEN

, Last Updated: 10:32 AM ET

It was a comment that said everything you need to know about the most heated rivalry in women's international sports.

Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser, asked by Sun Media a while back which player she'd most like to drop the gloves with, hesitated just a moment, before dishing out the following.

"Any of the U.S. players," Wickenheiser said.

The feeling, of course, is mutual.

"Take your pick -- it doesn't matter," American star Jenny Potter was saying yesterday. "They've got the red jersey on with the Maple Leaf. They're Canadian. We don't really get along with them."

And so continues a dislike that first grew claws at the inaugural world championship, 17 years ago.

The game has changed dramatically, since. The rivalry hasn't.

Tomorrow, it resumes, as the perennial powers meet in what should be the first of two games that will be unlike any other in this tournament (3:30 p.m., MTS Centre).

Saturday's should be just a warmup for the finale, on Tuesday. But don't expect either team to take a powder.

There's no such thing as playing soft when the jersey across from you stirs up such hard feelings.

Canadian players see the Red, White and Blue and immediately do a slow burn over two recent games: last year's pre-Olympic matchup here, in which they suffered a 5-3 Yankee spanking, and the gold-medal final at the last world championship, a 1-0 shootout loss in '05.

Team Canada boss Melody Davidson says the rivalry isn't as bitter as it was in the early '90s, but some of her players beg to differ.

"It's bitter right now, still," forward Sarah Vaillancourt said. "My first world championship was in 2005 ... losing in the shootout was a really bad feeling. We'll do everything to end it quicker than that, this year."

Last year's pre-Olympic result, on national television and before a huge crowd here, only added to the insult.

And while winning gold at the Winter Games in Turin was sweet, the score wasn't settled, face-to-face -- the U.S. lost to Sweden in the semifinal, and never played Canada.

"That's another thing," Vaillancourt said. "You can see it building and building."

Wickenheiser hasn't forgotten the last two big-time meetings, either. Not by a long shot.

"To me it's still a bitter, intense rivalry," she said. "What's changed is a lot of the players know each other."

That's because many are teammates in American colleges, which wasn't the case in the early '90s.

The U.S.'s Potter says some might even get dangerously close to becoming friends.

"I didn't say I am," Potter quickly added. "But some people are. I know people on the Canadian team. I wouldn't say we're friends. But we're cordial. I tend not to be friends with the enemy."

Potter raised some eyebrows, too, with her comment that the Americans could probably have beaten Canada if they'd reached the Olympic final in Turin.

"Yeah, could have," Vaillancourt said, the sarcasm dripping like sweat after a two-hour practice. "But didn't make it. We weren't saying if, if, if -- we just did it."

There's one thing everyone agrees on: when these teams meet, the game hits another level.

"It's much faster and much more physical," Vaillancourt said. "Tape-to-tape passes all around. Up and down, up and down. Great games."

We'll give the defending champs the last word.

"It's the most intense women's hockey game you'll see," U.S. forward Angela Ruggiero said. "If the refs let us play and there's a good flow to it, you'll see some amazing hockey. Outside of the pony tails, it's hard to tell it's a women's game, half the time."

Oh, no, we can tell.

And we wouldn't have it any other way.


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