This article is part of our Beijing Olympics series.
Almost four years ago, 3.7 million people watched a hockey game on NBC that ended after 2 a.m. Eastern, bringing an end to a drought that had spanned two decades. The U.S. women’s national team had, on the Olympic stage, finally overcome its rivals to the north for the first time in these players’ careers.
The victory over Canada was a blockbuster moment for the U.S., but those gold medals with the five rings on them tell only a fraction of the story in what is one of the most bitter rivalries in women’s sports. And they leave out crucial stories of the growth of the game outside North America: the tale of Finland’s rise and Sweden’s swift fall, of a young Czech team that has the potential to stand toe to toe with giants. We’ve seen these stories again on display over the course of this Olympic tournament in Beijing, with the quarterfinals starting late Thursday.
The past three decades of women’s hockey is full of all the drama of a young sport on the rise, both on the ice and off. It features boycotts and contract negotiations, new opportunities and sudden collapses — and yes, gritty battles between the U.S. and Canadian teams.
From the moment women’s hockey burst onto the international scene in 1990 — in front of 9,000 fans at the inaugural world championships held in Ottawa, Canada — there was an obvious and stark disparity in skill level between the North American teams and their counterparts from the rest of the world. Future Hockey Hall of Famers such as Canada’s Angela James and the U.S.’s Cammi Granato led their teams in dominating many of their overmatched competitors. This gap would remain something of an abyss over the following nine years, with Canada emerging into the new decade with a +168 goal differential in just 26 international games played (across world championships and Olympics). The only other teams to end the 1990s with a positive number in the goal differential column were the United States (+140) and Finland (+106).
We can also use a more advanced, all-in-one metric to show the highs and lows of the sport. Mike Murphy created a women’s college hockey version of game score; our version, adapted for international play and limited by the data available, pares his version down somewhat, using goals, assists, shots on goal1 and penalty infraction minutes. A country’s game score is the sum of individual player game scores.
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Using Game Score to track the quality of the teams from 1990 on, what we see in that first decade is Canada and the U.S. locked in battle from the beginning, with Finland running a close third. Canada bested the U.S. in all five world championships held in the 1990s, but the U.S. did claim the inaugural Olympic gold in 1998 at Nagano.
While the 1990s signified a new and exciting era of women’s sports, the 2000s would see its staying power cemented, with North American leagues such as the National Women’s Hockey League (1999-2007) and Canadian Women’s Hockey League (2007-19) established. These leagues, while not professional leagues, provided female players with a competitive space to play post-college. Similarly, across the Atlantic, 2007 saw the establishment of the Swedish Women’s Hockey League, or Riksserien, as it was then known. With the world’s second-best league in the world in Scandinavia, and those nations’ elite talent able to compete against one another on a regular basis, nations like Finland and Sweden became increasingly competitive on the international stage. With Finland already putting pressure on them, and Sweden seemingly rapidly catching up, it was a make-or-break time for the USA and Canada with elite players on all four teams going head to head. The major difference was in large part due to the depth of North American rosters and their ability to draw on younger elite players than the Scandinavian nations.
The development of young hockey players also gained a major push this decade when the NCAA national women’s hockey championships became an officially sanctioned event. (The first unofficial national collegiate championship took place in 1998 and was financed by the United States Olympic Committee in the lead-up to Nagano.) The NCAA women’s hockey program would go on to become the proving ground for many elite female players over the course of the decade: Angela Ruggerio, Jennifer Botterill, Julie Chu and Jessie Vetter — some of the greatest female players to ever play on international ice — were among the winners of the Patty Kazmaier Award, bestowed on the top female player in college hockey each year. The national championship provided the vast majority of North American players with something that simply didn’t exist in Europe or Asia — with the full weight of Title IX aiding these players in their development.
With more playing opportunities and greater development, the skill level in Canada and the U.S. kept rising — borne out by the intense matchups between the two countries. Canada continued its dominance for the first three world championships of the new millennium, though the U.S. bounced back to win three of the final four of the 2000s. In the Olympics, though, Canada rebounded from defeat at Nagano to take the 2002 and 2006 golds — and in Turin, the U.S. didn’t even make the gold-medal game, falling to silver medalist Sweden.
The 2010s saw the start of professionalism in women’s hockey, with national teams seeing increased pay stipends, insurance and training infrastructure. It was during this time that the second iteration of the National Women’s Hockey League (now the Premier Hockey Federation) was founded and became the first league to officially pay female players in any capacity before the Canadian and Swedish leagues followed suit in subsequent years.
With increased visibility came increased opportunities for women in the post-collegiate sphere to continue playing longer, with additional support at both a national and team level. But this decade also saw some of the greatest unrest in women’s hockey, with boycotts by both the USA and Swedish national teams over player compensation, the shock folding of Canada’s CWHL and the #forthegame movement in North America.
The decade also brought about some of the sport’s most memorable highlights: the Canadian win on home ice during the 2010 Vancouver Olympics; the “Ping Heard Round the World” in the 2014 Olympic gold medal game, when the USA missed an empty-net goal, hitting the post instead, with just over a minute left. (Canada would go on to equalize 30 seconds later and then win in OT.) The USWNT won the 2017 world championships in overtime just days after reaching an agreement with U.S. Hockey, and then the team won gold for the first time in 20 years at the Pyeongchang Olympics on the anniversary of Miracle on Ice. And that’s not to forget Finland taking silver for the first time in history at the 2019 world championships (though many may argue that it should have been gold).
Since COVID-19 first made its mark on sports in March 2020, there has been only one international women’s hockey tournament played at the top level: The 2021 world championships were eventually held in August 2021 after being canceled and postponed multiple times. Canada would take home the gold, making up for its first bronze medal in history during the 2019 event and placing the team in an excellent position heading into Beijing.
The under-18 women’s worlds has now been canceled two years in a row, but the future of women’s hockey remains bright. Two years’ worth of rookies entering the U.S. and Canadian national systems together have introduced several exciting young stars, some of whom are sure to wear their national flag for at least the remainder of this decade.
Even at this early stage, we have already seen some players’ careers ignite. Sarah Fillier’s performance for Canada at the 2021 world championship shot her toward being a household name. At the same tournament, Grace Zumwinkle stepped out and shone, even among a star-studded U.S. lineup. And Dominika Lásková, who plays for Merrimack College in the NCAA, showed up big for the Czech Republic and was a key contributor to their offensive dominance, scoring four goals as a defender — something her team will be hoping continues in Beijing. Finland, which is the biggest threat to the U.S. and Canada’s hold on the gold-medal game, saw goaltender Anni Keisala step up big at the worlds, all but cementing her position as the team’s starting goaltender and last line of defense. In the U.S. and Canada’s group play matchup in Beijing, Abby Roque emerged as a force for Team USA with an almost perfect faceoff record against the Canadians, and while she is still goal-less in the tournament, it feels like only a matter of time. Similarly, Fillier continues to defy even the loftiest of expectations, scoring on her opening shift in two straight games. And if the two teams, entering the semifinals seeded first and second, meet again in the Olympics, it will be in the gold-medal game.
The Olympics still stands taller than any other international tournament as the ultimate measure of not just a player’s skill but a country’s might — and for the first time in history, it might not be just a two-horse race this winter. While their lineups may be made of Titans of the Sport in players like Marie-Philip Poulin, Mélodie Daoust, Hilary Knight and Kendall Coyne Schofield, Canada and the United States are not invincible, and they can be beaten — Finland’s near-win in 2019 showed that. Other countries now boast stars comparable to those in North America: Finland has arguably the best defender in the world in Jenni Hiirikoski; Alina Müller, who led the last Olympics in goals, plays for Switzerland; Nana Fujimoto has the ability to completely lock down the goal crease for Japan, letting nothing past; and the Czech Republic might be the most fun team to watch.
There may never have been a better time to get invested in women’s hockey. This tournament houses a rivalry that runs deep into the hearts of two nations, that makes a gold-medal game that finishes after 2 a.m. worth staying up for in the eyes of millions. It’s a chance to experience moments that will no doubt go down in hockey’s rich history.