TEMPE – Arizonans have witnessed many big sporting events take over the state’s arenas throughout the years. However, they will see something many have never seen before when the United States women’s national hockey team faces off against Canada in the 2023-24 Rivalry Series, with the first of the seven-game competition tipping off Wednesday night at Mullett Arena.
The matchup between Team Canada and Team USA is as fierce and as passionate as any rivalry in any sport. It stretches back decades, with the two sides facing each other countless times in the past and mostly, inevitably, in the final rounds of the Olympics and tournament play. In fact, every women’s Olympic gold medal game has been between the two countries with the exception of one year.
It began in Nagano, Japan, when the 1998 Olympics featured women’s teams in the ice hockey competition for the first time. Team Canada was heavily favored, blowing through all competitors in nearly every tournament for years, with Team USA a perennial second.
But in the ‘98 Gold medal game, the U.S. stunned Canada, forging a rivalry that would grow even more ardent over the years.
We’ve since seen the U.S. win in thrilling fashion in Pyeongchang in 2018, breaking the 20-year gold medal drought they had to that point. We’ve also seen someone like Marie-Philip Poulin score a thrilling overtime winner in Sochi in 2014, giving Canada gold for the fourth straight year. Now some of the same players who brought many to their feet countless times are appearing in the Valley as the rivalry exhibition series kicks off at Mullett Arena.
For many, this will be the first time they’ll see in person some of the sport’s greatest athletes, along with watching the intense matchup between the two rivals. Here are four players to keep an eye on throughout the game.
Perhaps the best player Team USA has ever produced, Hilary Knight prepares to square off against Canada once again as one of the older players on the team. The 34-year-old forward has played numerous seasons with Team USA since 2006, including most recently last season where she scored 12 points in seven games last year. Eight of those points were goals.
Knight is ready to play with her USA teammates once again for the first time since April. The USA team hasn’t been in action for a while with many of the younger players playing for colleges.
“Some of us have and haven’t played games recently,” Knight said. “Some players are in college and others aren’t so just combining sort of both of those groups is where we’re at. We’re also working towards a common goal together and pushing the envelope. We did have a quick touch point in August during camp but we haven’t played together forever it seems like. This is a great opportunity to get some touches in and also high-level competition and really put our stamp on this game.”
Knight has played with multiple women’s teams over her career. Most recently, she played in the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) with the Minnesota team. She’ll be playing in the new Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL) in January with the Boston team.
Knight has represented the U.S. at the highest of levels, winning a combined 17 medals between the Olympics and the International Ice Hockey Federation. She’s never won a medal lower than silver and is tied with Hayley Wickenheiser for the most number of medals won in the IIHF by a women’s hockey player.
A highly offensive speedy player who can score at will, Knight has been on Team Canada’s radar for decades. She’s still Team USA’s most recognizable player, and perhaps its most lethal. Fans will have to keep an eye out for her as Canada might have a hard time shutting her down and she could have a big impact on the game.
From one of the longest-tenured players for the U.S. to one of the newest, Taylor Heise, a 23-year-old forward, might be the next face of women’s hockey for the United States. A Minnesota native, Heise played five seasons for the University of Minnesota, where she racked up 225 points in 172 games as a Golden Gopher, including back-to-back 60-plus point seasons. She led the NCAA in points in 2022 and goals the next year. She was also named WCHA Player of the Year in both of those seasons.
Eventually, she was the consensus top overall pick for the newly founded PWHL. In a twist of fate, the first pick was awarded to the Minnesota team who then drafted Heise. While she’s still honored about the achievement, she’s looking forward to playing with Team USA yet again.
“I’m super grateful,” Heise said. “I think most people would think that’s pressure but you know, pressure is a privilege and I try to take that every day and kind of run with it. The draft is in the past. I think about it here and there but this is the present and I’m here with a great group of girls that I love.
“They’re my best friends so it’s fun to be out here training with the best and know that you’re gonna get the best from our teams and Canada. We’re really excited for Wednesday to put out a good product on the ice.”
Similar to Knight, Heise is a lethal goal-scorer, as she has notched 29 goals in each of her last two seasons with Minnesota. However, she’s also known to rack up assists as well, as she showed in the most recent IIHF tournament with Team USA, where she recorded 11 assists in seven games. She’s a very talented player and her performance on Wednesday could open even more eyes.
Marie-Philip Poulin has been named the best women’s hockey player by The Sports Network (TSN) and now she’s taking her talent to Mullett Arena as captain of Team Canada. Poulin started her hockey career at Boston University and scored 50-plus points in back-to-back seasons as a Terrier.
Poulin, a 32-year-old forward, spent the next eight seasons playing in the CWHL and the PWHPA, most of those with Montreal-based teams. She also played multiple times with Team Canada in the IIHF and the Olympics through which she earned the nickname “Captain Clutch” due to her performance in the Sochi Winter Olympics where she scored two goals including the overtime winner in the gold medal game against the U.S. She came up clutch again in the 2021 IIHF gold medal game by scoring the OT winner for Canada.
Poulin is a frequent foe of Team USA and is excited to be a part of a new chapter in the rivalry between the two countries.
“It doesn’t get old that’s for sure,” Poulin said. “It’s always so exciting. In the last couple of years, we’ve played together and against each other. It’s just fun. I think there’s so much respect there. You play against the best. You play with the best against them. That’s how we get better. That’s how we get women’s hockey to improve every day. It’s always fun to play against them.”
Poulin will see most of the players on the U.S. team again in January when the PWHL begins its inaugural season. She was integral in bringing the league to life as she and others worked to build a stable and successful women’s hockey league. She signed with the Montreal team in September.
The Quebec native has shown up in so many huge moments for Canada with her elite two-way play. It’ll be exciting for many to see what she can do in person thanks to her reputation as one of the best female hockey players of all time.
Sarah Nurse, 28, has helped popularize the women’s game both on and off the ice. The Canadian forward from Hamilton, Canada, played collegiately with the University of Wisconsin, where her scoring increased every season until she hit a high of 53 points in her final year with the Badgers.
After graduating, Nurse took her talents to the CWHL and the PWHPA before joining the newly founded PWHL by signing a contract with the Toronto team. She’s also played with Team Canada numerous times throughout her career, including in 2022 in the Winter Olympics where she scored the opening goal in the gold medal game against Team USA and set two Olympic women’s hockey records for most points and assists scored in a tournament. Nurse finished the ‘22 Olympics with 18 points.
Nurse has been an important part of the growth of women’s hockey. In the past couple of years, the forward has been featured on the cover of NHL 23 along with in-game commentary becoming the first woman to be featured on the cover of an EA Sports NHL game. She also worked with Mattel and Tim Hortons to have a hockey Barbie doll created based on her that was also featured in the Barbie movie. Finally, she participated in the 2023 NHL All-Star Skills competition where she pulled off an impressive goal on NHL goaltender Igor Shesterkin.
Nurse has watched the sport expand and she’s happy with the amount of respect it now has.
“I think the biggest thing that I’ve seen is the respect for the women’s game in the last few years,” Nurse said. “I’ve seen it grow exponentially and from not only from my peers at the pro level, from ownership at the NHL level, but also just from that local youth minor hockey level. The little boys are looking at the girls and saying ‘Oh, you can be professional hockey players too,’ and I think the respect factor has grown so much.”
Nurse is more of a playmaker but she’s got great hands to pull off impressive dekes and moves. Playing with high-scoring players like Poulin could result in a fantastic game for Nurse and her popularity around the hockey community will have many eyes on her.
This is an exciting time for women’s hockey as the biggest rivalry in the sport comes to Mullett Arena. Arizona has been one of the biggest markets for women’s hockey in the United States. The Arizona Kachinas (the tier one girls hockey association of the Arizona Coyotes) have had teams compete in Nationals and the ASU women’s hockey team has put together one of the best teams in the women’s Division I American Collegiate Hockey Association league.