– It goes back to the days when there only were six NHL teams -- the fabled Original Six -- and though 95 percent of the players were Canadians, two-thirds of the teams were based in American cities. In those days, NHL scouts would check on American players only if absolutely forced to and U.S.-born skaters would be greeted with dismissive gestures, if not derogatory comments, from their Canadian teammates upon entering NHL dressing rooms.
It was ratcheted up considerably in 1991, when American defenseman Gary Suter
knocked Wayne Gretzky
out of the Canada Cup -- and, some say, ignited The Great One's history of back problems with a hit from behind in the first game of the finals. It reached a fever pitch in 1996 when, for the first and only time in history, a U.S. hockey team won a best-vs.-best men's hockey tournament by defeating Canada -- in Montreal, of all places -- to win the inaugural World Cup of Hockey.
In recent years, perhaps because of respective foreign policy decisions or maybe because the games are getting too close for some people's comfort, fans on both sides have taken to booing the other's National Anthem. And in the two most recent World Junior Championships played in Canada, local fans routinely rooted against the U.S. teams in the games in which Canada wasn't involved.
Of course, it is all wrapped up in geopolitics as well and the unique relationship between two bordering countries that couldn't be more alike and friendly in most ways. The larger nation to the north traditionally has been a bit wary, if not envious, of the military, political and cultural clout of the far more populous nation south of the 49th Parallel.
"It" is the Canada-United States hockey rivalry -- and it now is the one that invokes the most intense passion for both countries.
Canada-Russia? That was so 1972. U.S.-Russia? That was a two-time thing – in 1960 and again in 1980.
Rivalry Sunday at the 2010 Olympic hockey tournament will comprise three games. None will be more bitterly contested nor stir more complicated emotions that Team Canada vs. Team USA.
John Mayasich, who won gold with the U.S. Olympic team at the 1960 Squaw Valley Games, recalled a meeting with Canada in 1956 at the Cortina Games. En route to winning a silver medal, Team USA beat the club team (Kitchener-Waterloo) that Canada sent to those Olympics.
"Afterward, the Canadian coach offered us anything we wanted -- they'd pay anything -- to come to Montreal for a rematch right away," Mayasich said. "Our coach, (John) Mariucci was from the NHL -- he played with the Chicago Blackhawks
. He refused. He said, 'No, they'll have to sit on that one for four years.'"
Four years later, the Americans beat Kitchener-Waterloo again in the Olympics on their way to winning gold. Canada never sent a club team to another Olympic Games -- and American victories over Canadian teams at major tournaments became very rare things.
A breakthrough came in 1996 at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey – as seminal a moment for American hockey as the '60 and '80 Olympic triumphs.
Ron Wilson was the American coach then, as he is now. His declaration in the delirium of Team USA's postgame celebration: "We came through. We put to rest what a lot of people had said, earlier openly, and now, I guess in hushed tones: that Americans don't have the character and grit to play this great game of hockey."
"Everybody in Canada sees them as the big brother that you want to hang around with but you're not sure if you can trust all the time. And for Canadians, that's a tough thing to digest. All of a sudden, with what used to be their game, now the big brother is saying: 'OK, I'm taking the puck; I'm taking the stick and I'm taking the game.'"
-- Hockey analyst Pierre McGuire
The truth is, though, that the American hockey quest for respect from Canada never really ended. Six years later, on American soil in Salt Lake City, Canada beat Team USA in the Olympic final – with a Canadian dollar coin (a loonie) surreptitiously buried in the ice by a Canadian ice technician.
On the eve of that game, American center Jeremy Roenick
had this to say: "This is a one-game grudge match. To say we're going to kick their (butt) would be crazy. But definitely the desire to is there."
Added American center Doug Weight
: "This rivalry is incredible from your friends to your enemies. I'm not going to say we hate each other, but we want to beat each other so bad that it feels like hate. Don't get me wrong, I have a lot of friends there. But I don't want to beat anybody more than I want to beat Canada."
The feeling finally has become mutual, for myriad reasons.
"I think it really started to heat up when Gary Suter
hit Wayne Gretzky
from behind in the Canada Cup," said Pierre McGuire, the hockey analyst for NBC in the U.S. and TSN in Canada who was born in Englewood, N.J., now lives outside of Montreal and has split his life and citizenship between the two nations. "I really believe that is when it really started to percolate. But the big thing is: Canadians are very proud of their game. And they view it as THEIR game.
"Obviously, they competed so hard against Russia and Sweden and Finland and the Czech Republic and Slovakia for so long, they never really viewed the U.S. as a threat. But because of the way the Americans have really developed their programs and the stars they're starting to produce down in the United States and the number of first-overall picks like Patrick Kane
and Erik Johnson
, the Canadians are feeling that a little bit of their fabric is taken away from them. Things that never used to happen are happening now -- the Americans winning World Junior gold in 2004, winning again in Saskatoon, on Canadian soil, with John Carlson
, an American player, a first-round pick who actually did his training playing major junior hockey in Canada. All of this stuff percolates within the Canadian fabric. And people start to say: ‘These guys really are a rival.'
"I think the big thing too, when you think about Canada and the U.S.? Everybody in Canada sees them as the big brother that you want to hang around with but you're not sure if you can trust all the time. And for Canadians, that's a tough thing to digest. All of a sudden, with what used to be their game, now the big brother is saying: ‘OK, I'm taking the puck; I'm taking the stick and I'm taking the game.'"
On Sunday in Canada Hockey Place, Canada and the United States battle once again over the puck and the stick and – at least in this tournament – for North American hockey supremacy.
"It's obviously a lot of pride on the line," rambunctious American forward David Backes
said. "You're playing for your country and you're playing on a huge stage. I don't think there will be too many TVs turned off in all of North America when that game is on on Sunday.
"It's a non-workday, so many people are going to see it. It's at 4:30, right in the wheelhouse, 7:30 Eastern (time). There will be a lot of people watching it and it's setting the tone for the rest of the tournament. Obviously, if you lose, you don't go home. But it's setting the seedings. And for the other portion of the tournament, it means a lot."