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Wickenheiser stars as Canada’s women begin gold rush

The battle for gold in the women's ice hockey in Salt Lake City was always likely to be a battle between the USA and Canada, who had enjoyed an intense rivalry at the pinnacle of the sport since the 1998 Games.

In that period, the Canadians had been the stronger of the two teams at the world championships, but the USA had invariably got the better of their head-to-head matches.

True to form, both reached the final in Salt Lake City without any major scares. Canada won their semi-final against Finland 7-3 in a match that began as a close contest, but ended as a one-sided victory; meanwhile the Americans eased past Sweden 4-0, which extended their winning streak to 35 consecutive victories. It also preserved their remarkable record of never having lost at the Olympics.

The final proved to be a titanic clash. Canada went ahead within two minutes as Caroline Ouellette scored from close range. That was the only scoring in the first period. In the second period, it was the USA’s turn to strike early thanks to Katie King, but Canada's inspirational captain Hayley Wickenheiser soon restored the advantage.

Wickenheiser was one of a rare breed of athletes who had competed in both the Summer and Winter Games. She had been part of the Canadian ice hockey team that took silver four years earlier, and then competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney as a member of the Canadian team in the softball, which was featured as a demonstration sport.

However, there was no doubt that it was as an ice hockey player that Wickenheiser truly excelled. She had made her international debut at the age of just 15; now, at the age of 23, she was considered the pivotal player in Canada's team.

After she had put Canada back in front, a shot from Jayna Hefford bounced in off the back of unlucky goaltender Sara DeCosta to extend their lead to 3-1.

Karyn Bye scored for the States in the final period but, despite mounting attack after attack, the Americans could find no way to get the equaliser. For Canada, and for their captain, it was a monumental victory; it marked the end of the USA's unbeaten run at the Olympics, and the start of Canada's own period of dominance.

Wickenheister was named as the most valuable player of the tournament. She remained in the Canadian ice hockey squad at the next three editions of the Winter Games, winning a gold medal each time.

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