There are few rivalries as intense — and exclusive — as what the women’s ice hockey players of Team USA have with their neighbors from Canada. No other nation has won gold or silver at the world championships; no other country has been Olympic champion.
It is, in fact, what drives Kacey Bellamy.
“I love playing the Canadians,” said the 28-year-old defenseman, twice an Olympic silver medalist for Team USA. “That competition, that rivalry — it’s why I’m playing the game.”
And here comes another chance.
The two North American rivals join Finland and host Sweden this week for the 20th Four Nations Cup, the annual fall summit of the sport’s top teams. Team USA opens the five-day event Wednesday against Sweden, then meets the Canadians on Thursday and Finland on Saturday before Sunday’s medal games.
Team USA has played Canada in 17 of the previous gold-medal games.
Which is more than fine with Bellamy.
“We only come together and play them two, three, four times a year,” she said. “So any time you get to put on the jersey and play them, it’s a great opportunity.”
And this year it comes with something of a twist.
For several years, when they weren’t squaring off in international events, the Americans and Canadians mixed and matched on teams in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. But this year saw the launch of the U.S.-based National Women’s Hockey League — a four-team professional circuit where the players are earning paychecks.
Most of the U.S. national teamers made their way to the NWHL; the Canadians — for the time being — stuck with the established league. As for Bellamy, she simply moved from the CWHL’s Boston Blades, the lone U.S. team, to the new league’s Boston Pride.
So how might this split impact an already fierce rivalry?
“That’s hard to say,” Bellamy said. “I think you want the best players in one league and now they’re split up into two. But I definitely think it could be a factor in the next couple of years.”
Which just happens to be the ramp-up to the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games.
For Team USA, that process already has some momentum. The Americans captured the gold medal last spring at the IIHF Women’s World Championships in Sweden, overcoming a mid-match swoon that saw them squander a 5-1 lead to beat Canada 7-5. With a team that had seen a good deal of roster churn from the 2014 Olympic squad — and was led by a new coach in NHL veteran Ken Klee — it amounted to “a big step” in the coach’s eyes, and 13 of those players will be wearing the USA sweater again in Sweden this week.
“It was our first international event since the Olympics, where we’d had a lot of heartbreak,” Klee said, referencing a 3-2 overtime loss to Canada after holding a 2-0 lead. “It was important for us to turn the page. We’re in a new quad now, and there’s no looking back.”
For Bellamy, the changeover has been invigorating.
“Coach Klee has done an amazing job,” she said. “He commanded a lot of respect from the get-go and he demanded a work ethic, but he lets us be creative and we’re able to just breathe and play hockey, and that’s probably the most important thing after 2014.”
Along the way, the U.S. players are trying to carve out an identity. For Klee, there’s a priority in “a dedication to doing the little things well.” And there’s still some tinkering being done. Two newcomers, Emily Janiga and Jordan Smelker, will be making their national team debuts this week, while Allie Thunstrom returns to the program for the first time since the 2010 Four Nations Cup, having “rededicated herself to getting back in the mix,” Klee said. (UPDATE: As of Nov. 3, 17-year-old Presley Norby replaced Janiga.)
But there are different ways to go about dedication, as Bellamy is learning.
In addition to her national team duties and her play in the NWHL, she moonlights as an assistant coach at Merrimack College.
“So I have three teams,” she said, “which is unique.
“There’s a lot of work going on, and I have to make sacrifices, but it’s something I chose. If it means having to work out at 5 a.m., there’s no excuses because it was my decision. And I think it’s really helped me, because I’m focusing on making other people better — and that’s the girls I’m coaching and the ones I’m playing with on the Pride and the national team. It’s brought me a different focus.”
Of course, the calendar could have done the same thing, given her length of service on the national team.
“This is my 10th Four Nations,” she said, “but I still look at myself as one of the young ones, even if I’m not. Young at heart, anyway.”