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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: Mounsey was there when the greatest rivalry began

  • Tara Mounsey wraps herself in the US flag on the ice after the team's defeat of Canada for the Gold Medal in Nagano.<br/><br/>photo by John Tlumacki/Boston Globe

    Tara Mounsey wraps herself in the US flag on the ice after the team's defeat of Canada for the Gold Medal in Nagano.

    photo by John Tlumacki/Boston Globe

  • U.S. Olympic women's hockey team member Karyn Bye is seen draped in a U.S. flag, as she and teammate Cammi Granato, right,  shake hands with members of Team Canada, following the U.S.  gold medal victory over Team Canada  at Big Hat arena,  Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1998. U.S. defeated Canada  3-1. (AP Photo/Hans Deryk)

    U.S. Olympic women's hockey team member Karyn Bye is seen draped in a U.S. flag, as she and teammate Cammi Granato, right, shake hands with members of Team Canada, following the U.S. gold medal victory over Team Canada at Big Hat arena, Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1998. U.S. defeated Canada 3-1. (AP Photo/Hans Deryk)

  • Tara Mounsey wraps herself in the US flag on the ice after the team's defeat of Canada for the Gold Medal in Nagano.<br/><br/>photo by John Tlumacki/Boston Globe
  • U.S. Olympic women's hockey team member Karyn Bye is seen draped in a U.S. flag, as she and teammate Cammi Granato, right,  shake hands with members of Team Canada, following the U.S.  gold medal victory over Team Canada  at Big Hat arena,  Tuesday, Feb. 17, 1998. U.S. defeated Canada  3-1. (AP Photo/Hans Deryk)

The U.S. and Canadian women’s hockey teams, forever knocking each other down in a sport that doesn’t permit checking, actually brawled during exhibition play last fall.

To which former Olympian and gold-medal winner Tara Mounsey, formerly of Concord, said, “What took so long?”

“I’m surprised that was the first time it happened at that magnitude,” Mounsey said yesterday.

The teams play for gold today. It’ll be the fourth time that’s happened in the five Olympics since the sport debuted for women in 1998, in Nagano, Japan.

Game time is noon.

Mounsey helped Team USA beat Canada in Nagano to win that first hockey gold medal. She returned for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, winning silver.

Now 35, she lives in Canton, Mass., and is a nurse practitioner in Boston. She’s also a source for something extraordinary.

How great is this rivalry?

“This is real,” Mounsey said by phone. “This has been going on for decades. It’s intense. Since the start of the national program, it’s always been the USA and Canada, USA and Canada.”

Nothing in men’s sports compares.

Red Sox and Yankees? Ohio State and Michigan in football? Duke and North Carolina in hoops?

Nope, nope and nope.

The teams in those matchups have good years and bad. Other teams figure into the championship mix.

Not here. Not with the United States and Canada. It’s them and everyone else, two teams forever eyeing one another, even when they’re playing someone else.

A look at the record book shows that Canada had the stage to itself in the early days of international women’s hockey, winning the first eight world championships, from 1990 through 2004.

The U.S. settled for silver every time.

Since then, though, Team USA has won five of the past seven world titles, with Canada taking silver, of course.

The U.S. added four-straight wins during the most recent pre-Olympic competition.

In two of those games, punches were thrown, facemasks were yanked and bodies were pulled to the ice.

In the first fight, last October in Burlington, Vt., Monique Lamoureux ran into Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados to spark the fire.

Then, two months later in North Dakota, Lamoureux’s sister, Jocelyn, defended teammate Josephine Pucci after a late hit by Brianne Jenner. Four separate fights erupted in that one.

No checking in women’s hockey? No fighting?

Try telling that to these two teams. For an appetizer before today’s game, check YouTube and see what you think.

“We’re talking about high emotions,” Mounsey said. “You’re sticking up for your teammates. I think it’s fine, good for them.”

During a recent interview, forward Hilary Knight said the word “hate” was not an unfair way to describe her feelings toward Canada.

Mounsey, looking back at her time on the team, stopped short of that, saying, “I don’t know how deep-rooted people are taking it, but we would hang out with them after the game and after tournaments. At the end of the day, yeah, some people are completely different on the ice. The intensity on the ice is challenging and deep-rooted, but saying hate is a bad description.”

Which gives you an idea of who Mounsey is. She served as the perfect ambassador here, at a time her sport needed exposure.

Fans packed Everett Arena on Oct. 18, 1997, when Mounsey and Team USA played a pre-Olympic exhibition game against a collection of college all-stars.

She was New Hampshire’s best high school player while on the Concord High School boys’ team in the mid-1990s.

Later, she graduated from the Ivy League’s Brown University and earned a master’s degree at Boston College. She’s a nurse practitioner at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, works as a medical coordinator with the Boston Celtics and is the mother of two young boys.

She’s also probably the most modest big-time athlete I’ve ever met. Sandy Smith, the Monitor’s sports editor, covered the Olympics in Nagano and again in Salt Lake City, shadowing Mounsey for local reports.

“She was widely considered the best defenseman in the world,” Smith said yesterday. “Their coach called her the Bobby Orr of women’s hockey.”

Mounsey’s slick skating and penalty killing helped the U.S. strike gold 16 years ago, to which Mounsey said yesterday, “It’s so hard to put that experience into words. Amazing. An emotional experience.”

Team USA hasn’t won since. Canada has won the gold at the last three Olympics, beating the U.S. twice.

“It’s time for the tides to change here,” Mounsey said. “It’s time for the U.S. to step up.”

She says the U.S. is younger, smaller and faster than Canada. She says it could go either way. She’s taking the day off to watch with friends.

“A back-and-forth game,” Mounsey said. “That intensity and that competitiveness, with everything on the line, it just doesn’t get any better than that for women’s hockey.

And Mounsey was there at the start, helping to create what we’ll watch today.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

Exactly: “The best defenseman in the world” and “the Bobby Orr of women’s hockey.” She is the reason for that gold medal and without doubt, head and shoulders, the greatest ever to play the women’s game.

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