Are U.S. and Canada on golden collision course in hockey?

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No matter how many times they say it – and they’ve said it plenty in the past few days – members of the United States women’s hockey team will have a tough time arguing there are more gold-medal contenders than two when their Olympic tournament starts Saturday in Sochi.

But here’s star forward Amanda Kessel trying to argue it anyway: “It’s not only Canada that we have to beat.”

And here’s coach Katey Stone: “It’s an eight-team tournament as far as we’re concerned. We’ve got a game on Saturday against Finland, and we’re not looking past that. The last game we didn’t win was against Finland in the Four Nations Cup, and there’s not a player in that locker room that doesn’t remember that.”

True, the U.S. did lose to Finland in November, thanks to a 58-save performance by Golden Gophers goalie Noora Raty. However, there’s a reason most news stories included the word “stunned” to describe what the Finns did to their opponents in that 3-1 victory.

It sure didn’t look like “an eight-team tournament” on Tuesday when the U.S. scrimmaged with Germany. They didn’t keep an official score, but roughly speaking, it was a lot for the U.S. to not much, if any, for the overmatched Germans, who appeared beyond exhausted by the end of it. Even a first-time hockey observer would have noticed the enormous discrepancy in talent and execution.

In international women’s hockey, it’s the U.S., Canada, then everyone else. Should one of those teams from the “everyone else” category beat one of the big two here in Sochi, something fairly extraordinary has happened.

Given the hierarchy in women’s hockey, it’s no surprise the pair of powerhouses has developed a fierce rivalry. In December, the two sides had a much-publicized line brawl in Grand Forks. And that wasn’t their first punch-up in the last few years either.

VIDEO: Julie Chu explains why the U.S.-Canada rivalry is so good

Kessel – the younger sister of Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel — isn’t expecting any of that in the Olympics, though.

“I don’t think you’ll see any fighting here,” she said. “I think people know what’s at stake, and it’s important to stay out of the box.”

Stone, on the other hand, didn’t completely count out the possibility, if that’s the way Canada wants to play.

“That was a controlled response in North Dakota, and our kids are going to try to control as many situations as they can on the ice,” Stone said. “So we’re going to play our game, but we’re prepared to play any game we have to play.”

Fisticuffs aside, Canada has won the last three Olympic gold medals, including the last one four years ago in Vancouver, where the hosts came away with a 2-0 victory in the final game.

For U.S. captain Meghan Duggan, that’s a big part of the motivation this time around.

“When you come up short, it doesn’t feel good,” said Duggan.

“I know for those of us that have been on teams in the past that have been unsuccessful against Canada, that burns in your heart every single day. How we prepare ourselves this year, how we train, everything we’ve done on the ice, off the ice, is in preparation to come out of this tournament with a gold medal.”

Kessel concurred: “We’re here to win gold and nothing else.”

The U.S. and Canada are guaranteed at least one meeting, a preliminary round match-up on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

After that, it’s likely both teams will receive a bye to separate semi-final games on Feb. 17.

The gold-medal game would then loom next, on Feb. 20.

USA Hockey, women’s national team strike deal, avoid worlds boycott

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USA Hockey and its women’s national team struck a deal to avoid a world championship boycott over a wage dispute, three days before the tournament starts.

Both sides confirmed a new, four-year contract was agreed to Tuesday evening.

“Our sport is the big winner today,” U.S. captain Meghan Duggan said in a press release. “We stood up for what we thought was right, and USA Hockey’s leadership listened. In the end, both sides came together. I’m proud of my teammates and can’t thank everyone who supported us enough. It’s time now to turn the page. We can’t wait to play in the World Championship later this week in front of our fans as we try and defend our gold medal.”

Earlier in the day, a four-year contract was set to be voted on by players, but it was held up for hours in the afternoon by an unforeseen contract-language snag, according to a source close to the situation.

The 23-player roster said March 15 that it would boycott the world championship in Plymouth, Mich., unless significant progress was made over “fair wages and equitable support” in negotiations that began 15 months earlier.

Now, the team is set to play its worlds group-play opener with rival Canada on Friday. The U.S. will hold its first practice Thursday.

“Financially, there was some compromise involved, but I think in the big picture it was a really good thing for women’s hockey,” USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean said by phone, while refusing to discuss financial specifics. “A lot of good things were resolved to their satisfaction. It’s a really good foundation to move forward, four years without distractions to hopefully maintain our position as the No. 1 team in the world.”

The national team sought a new contract with USA Hockey that would pay top players throughout the four-year Olympic cycle, in addition to other items including more resources allocated toward women’s program development.

USA Hockey offered this on deal specifics:

The agreement includes the formation of a Women’s High Performance Advisory Group of former and current players from the U.S. Women’s National Team program, along with volunteer and staff leadership, to meet regularly to assist USA Hockey in efforts to advance girls’ and women’s hockey in all areas, including programming, marketing, promotion and fundraising. That is in addition to the focus on the grassroots hockey areas that volunteers of USA Hockey’s Girls’ and Women’s Section have been involved with for almost 30 years.

An emergency USA Hockey board of directors meeting was held Monday to discuss the matter, but neither side commented on negotiations that evening.

The two sides previously met last Monday for more than 10 hours, talks that both sides called productive. But USA Hockey proceeded to postpone its training camp, cancel its scheduled exhibition with Finland last Friday and start looking for replacement players through the weekend. It made a counter offer to the national team on Thursday that was rejected.

Dozens of players from around the country — post-collegiate, collegiate and high school — posted on social media that they turned down USA Hockey invitations to possibly be on a replacement team for worlds should the original team stick with its boycott.

Previously, USA Hockey’s compensation was awarded exclusively during the six-month Olympic period, while regular monthly stipends came from the U.S. Olympic Committee.

“We are asking for a living wage and for USA Hockey to fully support its programs for women and girls and stop treating us like an afterthought,” Duggan said in a press release on March 15. “We have represented our country with dignity and deserve to be treated with fairness and respect.”

Support grew for the national-team last week, with messages of solidarity from the players’ associations for MLB, NBA, NFL and the NHL.

On Monday, 16 U.S. Senators called on USA Hockey to “resolve this dispute quickly” to ensure the team receives equitable resources.

The U.S. seeks its first world title on home ice and its fourth straight world title overall, which would be its best streak in worlds history (dating to 1990). Canada has won the last three Olympic titles.

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U.S. skier Laurenne Ross out months with knee injury

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Laurenne Ross, the second-best U.S. speed racer behind Lindsey Vonn the last two years, suffered a right knee injury in a U.S. Championships crash on Monday and won’t be able to ski for at least two months, according to her social media.

“Further analysis is required to figure out exactly what is wrong, but I will not be skiing for at least the next couple months,” was posted on Ross’ Instagram. “I will keep you all updated when the time comes.”

Ross, 28, had a promising season, with seven World Cup top-10 finishes. She was fifth in the world championships downhill and fourth in the Olympic test event downhill in South Korea.

Ross has come back from injury before — a fractured pelvis in December 2006, a torn left ACL in 2008, at least five left shoulder dislocations and multiple broken fingers.

She made her first Olympic team in Sochi, where she was 11th in the downhill.

“I had many ups and downs, but am so thankful to have made it this far in my career with all the love and support that surrounds me,” was posted on Ross’ Instagram. “I will tack this on to my list of injuries, move on, and come back stronger.”

Ross is the second U.S. speed racer to suffer major injury in a crash this month. Breezy Johnson suffered a tibial plateau fracture in her left leg in the World Cup Finals downhill.

Ross, Vonn and Johnson, plus four-time Olympic medalist Julia Mancuso and World Cup podium finishers Stacey Cook and Jacqueline Wiles will likely all be vying for Olympic downhill places next season. Mikaela Shiffrin could try, too.

A nation can enter no more than four women per race at the Olympics.

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MORE: Mikaela Shiffrin eyes speed events in 2018

After a fun and wonderful season I am so sad to announce that yesterday, at US Nationals, I sustained an injury to my right knee. Further analysis is required to figure out exactly what is wrong, but I will not be skiing for at least the next couple months. I will keep you all updated when the time comes. I crossed so many finish lines this year — some with a smile and some without — but as I look back I can breathe deeply, because I have no regrets. It was a season for learning, for friendship, and for ambition. I had many ups and downs, but am so thankful to have made it this far in my career with all the love and support that surrounds me. I will tack this on to my list of injuries, move on, and come back stronger. I can't wait to step up to the challenges that lay ahead of me, and I couldn't do it without all of your support. Thank-you so much for being there, through thick and through thin, through the wins, the losses, the injuries, and the joy 🙏 I will be back 👊

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