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Sunday, Dec 21, 2014
Tampa Bay Lightning

U.S., Canada rivalry draws players’ attention

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ORLANDO — About the time the Lightning wrap up a post-practice workout early this afternoon, players and coaches will scramble to find a TV.

The biggest rivalry in international hockey will be under way half a world away when the United States and Canada face off in an Olympic semifinal match in Sochi, Russia. A berth in the gold-medal game is on the line.

“You think of Canada and Russia, but I think now with all success the American team has had, that’s the bigger rivalry, to be honest,’’ said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who has represented Canada a handful of times and was selected for the Olympic team but could not play because of injury.

“You have all North American players that are really familiar with themselves. That brings a new mentality in, so it’s going to be another great game.’’

This marks the third time in the past four Olympics the United States and Canada will play with a potential medal on the line. At the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Canada beat the United States in overtime in the gold-medal game.

The sides also met in the 2002 gold-medal game and the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship game.

Though there is history between Canada and Russia stemming from the 1972 Summit Series, the recent rise of the United States on the international level has created a fierce rivalry between the neighboring North American hockey nations.

Tampa Bay forward Ryan Malone, a member of the 2010 U.S. team that lost to Canada, thinks the rivalry is at its highest level. That includes the sometimes bitter rivalry between the nations in the women’s game, which will likely increase after Thursday’s overtime win by Canada in the gold-medal game.

“It’s grown a lot the last couple of years — and with the ladies, with the couple of dust-ups and line brawls they had this year making headlines,’’ Malone said. “You definitely feel, not necessarily pressure, but you want to win and make sure you have bragging rights.’’

With all 50 rostered players on the two teams coming from NHL teams, the quality of competition is second to none.

“I think if you turned back the clock, it used to be Canada-Russia was the big one, and that’s only because 30 years ago USA Hockey was not where it is today,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who helped USA Hockey this past summer.

“They have done one heck of a job starting grassroots programs, and when the NHL expanded to southern states it grew the game. Now that the U.S. is a power and Canada remains a power, geographically, it just makes sense.”

eerlendsson@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7835

Twitter: @erlendssonTBO

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