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ESPN The Magazine: Clash Mates
ESPN The Magazine

The best forward in the world smiles when she thinks about her friend, the best defenseman in the world, a woman she is required to loathe. It’s been a year since Jennifer Botterill has really talked to Angela Ruggiero. They’ve made contact only in icy collisions and seen each other only through the bars of their helmets. The schism in their friendship is as clear as the border dividing their countries.

Botterill is Canada’s go-to girl, a 5'9", 160-pound skating whiz from Winnipeg with a tremendous stride and deadly finishing touch. Ruggiero is Team USA’s steadiest presence, a 5'9", 190-pound rock from Simi Valley, Calif., whose quick hands and menacing shot make her all the more intimidating. For the past six months, the Harvard roommates have camped out a thousand miles apart -- Jen in Calgary, Angela in Colorado Springs -- practicing and waiting for the inevitable. Their teams have dominated the small world of women’s hockey since meeting in the first world championship in 1990. Canada has won all seven titles, but the U.S. is defending Olympic gold.

Four years ago in Nagano, Jen and Rugger were both just 18, the youngest on their teams. They knew each other’s names, but their contact was limited to postgame handshakes. Then, shortly after the Ruggiero-anchored U.S. defense choked the Canadians and left them with silver, the two girls met in a twist of fate, at a train station in Rhode Island on a recruiting trip to Brown University. “I saw Jen, and even though we’d never met, I knew exactly who she was,” Angela says. The medals were never mentioned. The joy Ruggiero had experienced at Botterill’s expense was left unspoken. The prospect of future clashes was ignored. They just talked -- like they’d known each other for years. “Rugger has a contagious energy,” Botterill says. “We hit it off right away.” They visited Harvard separately, but when Rugger decided to commit, she called Jen and convinced her new friend to do the same.

The pair won everything in Cambridge. Their dominance began with a hockey team two-on-two hoops tournament their freshman season (’98-99). Botterill, an accomplished baller, and Ruggiero bought matching socks, shorts, T-shirts and headbands, painted their faces and demolished their teammates. Says Rugger: “I just stood there and passed Jen the ball.”

The friendship flourished, and so did the Crimson, taking the national title that season. (Two other teammates at the time -- American A.J. Mleczko and Canadian Tammy Lee Shewchuck -- will also square off in Salt Lake.) “Angela and Jen came in with Olympic medals around their necks,” says Harvard coach Katey Stone. “But there was no tension between them at all.”

Beyond the ivy-covered brick of Cambridge, though, tensions run thicker than friendships. Over the past 12 years, the U.S. and Canada have met 51 times in a rivalry even closer than Canada’s 28-23 edge would indicate: 25 games have been decided by one goal, with six reaching overtime and three ending in shootouts.

But in eight pre-Olympic matchups since Oct. 20, the Americans have outscored the Canadians 31-13, winning all eight games. Ruggiero and Botterill share ice, but little else. In fact, their only off-ice encounter was accidental: a chance meeting and 15-minute covert conversation in an Ottawa bookstore the night before a game. They chatted about family, old Harvard friends and how they’ll be together again for one more season in Cambridge. “There are unspoken rules about where your loyalties lie,” Ruggiero says. “The Canadians don’t speak to the Americans, and the Americans don’t speak to the Canadians.”

Checking isn’t allowed in women’s hockey, but the “coincidental contact” is fierce. And when the player across the face-off circle is your buddy, the trash-talking is louder, the emotions higher. “You go harder,” Rugger says. Adds Jen: “I know she’s more fired up when she sees it’s me. There’s more incentive to take me into the boards. Each of us is on a mission.”

The emotions are confusing. Elation is mixed with sympathy, disappointment with respect. The three times Botterill has kissed gold at worlds, Ruggiero has been happy for her and enormously disappointed in herself, wishing she’d been beaten by a stranger. When the Canadians fell short in Nagano, Botterill said she harbored no resentment toward her American friend, but instead looked to herself and her teammates to fix the problems before their next clash.

See, that’s the thing: With the U.S. and Canada, there is always a next time. That time is now.

This article appears in the February 18 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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