COLUMBUS – Yes, there was plenty of confrontation. There was no shortage of disagreement or altercation. It was everything you’d expect from the United States and Canada in a hockey game.
But one thing set the tone right away, and that was the building.
Nationwide Arena had a special vibe on Friday night, one which elicited memories of the Stanley Cup playoffs two springs ago and reminded us how the place can really rumble when it wants to. It had been 12 years since Columbus last hosted a World Cup of Hockey game (fittingly, also the last time the city hosted Team USA’s training camp) and she did not disappoint.
Around the Team USA dressing room, players raved about the atmosphere and how it contributed to making the Americans’ 4-2 win over Canada feel like something more than just a pre-tournament game.
There was something else that helped push the U.S. over the edge in the third period when Canada came with a flurry of chances, and when they needed to bend and not break when it felt as though the game could tilt the other way.
It was the 17,791 who turned out to roar from the pre-game introductions through the final horn and let “U-S-A” reverberate through the rafters. And it made an exhibition game feel like a playoff game.
“Even though it’s an exhibition game, neither team wants to lose,” said defenseman Jack Johnson, one of three Blue Jackets representatives taking part in a home game tonight. “There’s a lot on the line. It meant a lot for us to play here in front of our home fans. I think it was special for the city.”
U.S. head coach John Tortorella said his team has plenty to work on despite opening its pre-tournament schedule with a win over its biggest rival, but he was a fan of how his players stuck together in an intense game – an intensity level that surprised some of the players at first.
With a wry smile, Canada coach Mike Babcock reminded those in the media room that these two teams will get together again Saturday night in Ottawa.
Johnson said it was the fastest and most intense exhibition game he’d ever been part of. Brandon Dubinsky said the electricity in the arena helped set the stage for some of the fireworks, and it rose up a notch when Team USA started to find the back of the net.
“This was a special game to play in for me personally, to get to show these guys what great fans we have here,” he said. “It was a lot of fun. An unbelievable atmosphere. I’m glad we got to do it in Columbus, and show not only USA Hockey about Columbus but show the fans a good show.”
Did the pace surprise him at all?
“It was what was advertised,” Dubinsky said. “Both teams want to set the tone and get themselves prepared for the tournament.”
If the goal was to whet the appetite of hockey fans, mission accomplished.
The World Cup of Hockey doesn’t get underway for another week, but an early September night in Columbus stoked the fire for not only another round (or two) of USA vs. Canada, but for an international tournament on the horizon which seems to have everyone’s attention.