The nature of rivalries in sports has changed since the dawn of free agency and the advent of the salary cap era in baseball, basketball, hockey and football. There has been a fundamental shift in how teams are constructed and the idea of a player spending their entire career with a single franchise is passé.
As such, how we view rivalries has shifted accordingly. Having the same two teams meet in the finals of any major men’s sporting competition in consecutive seasons gives birth to a rivalry and leaves us flush with storylines about revenge and legacies, talk about dynasties and the greatness of those organizations.
Only once in the last 25 seasons have the same two teams squared off in the Stanley Cup Finals in consecutive seasons; the same goes for the NFL. It’s only happened twice in the NBA during that span and you have to go all the way back to 1977 and 1978 to find the last time it happened in Major League Baseball.
There does exist, however, a rivalry that has existed for 25 years, spanning 15 world championships and five Olympic Games, where the same two teams have faced off in the finals in 19 of the 20 competitions, with another showdown looming on the horizon.
The best rivalry in sports right now is the one between the women’s national hockey teams from Canada and the United States.
Think about the history between these two nations mentioned above: 20 competitions over 25 years and they’ve faced one another in the gold medal game – a one-and-done, winner-take-all showdown – 19 times. Should both nations win their semifinal pairings today in Sweden, the two will meet for a 20th time in the gold medal game at this year’s IIHF World Women’s Hockey Championship as well.
Obviously, the fact that Canada and the United States are dueling powerhouses in the women’s hockey arena while the rest of the country’s participating in these tournaments are playing catch-up factors into their having met in 95 percent of the gold medal games in major competitions over the last quarter century, but it doesn’t diminish the depth and seriousness of this rivalry.
If anything, it strengthens it.
You know that other team is waiting for you. You know that they are preparing for you specifically – that all the other games they play are a prelude to when you share the ice again – and that even though the rosters have changed over the years, the emblem on the front of the jerseys remains the same and the tension between the two sides will always be there.
There is nothing even close to being comparable to this rivalry throughout the sporting world right now.
Sure there are yearly battles between soccer clubs from the same city or country that are fiercely competitive and have been waged for years, but it’s not as if Real Madrid and Barcelona have faced off in the finals of the Champions League every year for the last 25 years.
That’s what Canada and the United States have done. Every year that there has been a major tournament – a world championship or an Olympics – these two sides have shared the ice in the final game of the competition, save for the 2006 Olympic gold medal game, where Canada defeated Sweden after they upset the US in the semifinals.
What’s frustrating is that this rivalry doesn’t receive anywhere near the coverage that it deserves. If this were the men’s national sides in any major North American sport or two teams in a professional league meeting even half as often, it would be a week-long talking point heading into their next encounter.
ESPN would dedicate a portion of The A Block on every talking head series that they have to discussing the history of said rivalry – it’s greatest moments and greatest players – and Canadian networks would follow suit. It would be inescapable.
Yet with each team a win away from setting up their 20th meeting in 21 major competitions, the story is getting zero coverage in the United States and is a secondary talking point here in Canada, after covering the playoff push in the NHL and NBA, the Blue Jays departing Dunedin and whatever the “story of the day” is in the world of sports, like Tiger Woods’ jet showing up in Augusta, Georgia.
There is no better rivalry in sports today than the one between the women’s national hockey teams from Canada and the United States and it deserves far greater coverage than it has received over the years.