The Olympic rivalry between the United States and Canadian women’s hockey teams, which first began in 1998 in Nagano, Japan is as contentious on the ice today as it was then, albeit with a few interesting wrinkles.
This is the story of but one of those wrinkles.
When the U.S. and Canada meet one another in PyeongChang on February 15, 2018 (in what many see as a prelude to yet another Olympic gold medal game between the two best women’s hockey teams in the world), two players – one from the U.S. and one from Canada – will coolly put their friendship on hold until the final buzzer sounds.
Best friends, U.S. goalie Alex Rigsby and Canadian forward Blayre Turnbull first met at the University of Wisconsin seven years ago, and now, they’ll make their Olympic debuts together in PyeongChang as rivals.
“When we first met, I was a sophomore in college and she was a freshman,” Rigsby recalled in a phone conversation with NBCOlympics.com.
“Right away I was like, This girl is awesome. She’s super fun to hang out with and super easy-going, so we became close friends right away.”
“I think one thing that drew Rigs and I together as friends is our competitiveness and our want to win, Turnbull explained to NBCOlympics.com.
“We want to be the best we can be. That’s one thing I think that makes us really, really compatible.”
These fast friends quickly realized they also shared the same hockey dreams.
“[The Olympics are] something we’ve both talked about from the moment we met. Something we’ve both had our sights on for so long. Being able to go through our first Olympic experience together, even as rivals, is still something I’m very proud of,” Turnbull said.
Rigsby was in the running to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 2014, but was let go in the final cut, while Turnbull would have to wait another four years to have her first chance to make Canada’s Olympic roster.
With more and more women’s hockey players from Canada enrolling in U.S. colleges and universities, the landscape of the U.S.-Canada rivalry was bound to evolve. Twenty-one of the 23 players named to Canada’s 2018 Olympic women’s hockey team spent time on NCAA ice, as opposed to just eight of 23 players for Team Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Two of the 21 NCAA-experienced players set to represent Canada happen to be former Wisconsin teammates of Rigsby and Turnbull – goalie Ann-Renée Desbiens and forward Sarah Nurse. In the season they all played together for the Badgers, Risgby served as the team captain and Turnbull was one of two assistant captains.
“[Desbiens and Nurse] were freshman my senior year, so I got to know them over the next couple years when I was still training in Madison. So I’m excited to see them on this journey as well,” Rigsby said
But Rigsby and Turnbull have taken their U.S.-Canada friendship to the next level. They say they text and Snapchat almost daily, but when the conversation turns to hockey, both have a firm grasp on what’s ok and what’s not ok to discuss.
“We don’t talk too much about strategies or anything like that between the two teams,” Rigsby said with a laugh.
“We definitely talk about hockey because we both have had similar experiences, so we both go through the ups and the downs and as best friends we rely on each other to help one another through the tough times and to celebrate our successes, Turnbull said.
“There’s obviously a line that we don’t cross when it comes to sharing information.”
Both women hang their friendship up in the locker room for 60-minute increments when their teams are on the ice playing one another. Once the puck drops, the friend becomes the foe, and they have a clear understanding of how to handle that relationship if they wind up face-to-face in a game.
“I’m pretty sure she gave me a little cross-check at one of our games [this year],” Rigsby remembers.
“That’s me playing for Team Canada and her playing for Team USA – the biggest rivalry in the world,” Turnbull admits.
Turnbull actually scored her first international goal in a game against the U.S. during an Under-22 series. The goalie she scored on was Rigsby.
“I still remember the goal, too. I had a 2-on-1 and I was coming down the right side of the ice and I took a snapshot low blocker and it went in. I think I beat her pretty good on that one,” Turnbull said.
“I told her, ‘You’re welcome,’” Rigsby said.
When she isn’t traveling with her national team, or playing for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Calgary Inferno, Turnbull likes to make return trips to Wisconsin, where Rigsby and her family still live.
“Almost every summer I try to get back to Wisconsin to visit Alex and hang out with my other friends who are still there. Every time I go back I always end up down at the Rigsby lake house,” Turnbull said.
When the two were still in college, Alex’s mother, who has taken to Turnbull as if she is one of her own daughters, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Turnbull lost her own mother to cancer when she was still in high school, and knowing what her friend was going through, did everything she could to support Rigsby.
“Blayre was one of the first people I told when my mom was diagnosed with cancer, Rigsby said.
“It was kind of a connecting thing between the two of us, as well. It really helped having her when I went through that whole process.”
“I unfortunately had to experience that when I was a little bit younger. I knew what she was going through. I knew the emotions she and her family were feeling so I wanted to help them feel better in any capacity that I could,” Turnbull said.
With Rigsby’s mother in remission, Turnbull honored her fight against cancer by giving her a gift – a pink hockey stick complete with “Mama Rigs” emblazoned on the handle.
“My mom loves Blayre and for her to give my mom a breast cancer awareness hockey stick that said “Mama Rigs” on it, my mom was pretty happy about that, Rigsby said.
“My mom is a really tough person and through the whole thing she didn’t really get emotional, but she definitely teared up when Blayre handed her that stick.”
When these two friends get to PyeongChang for the biggest hockey event of either of their lives, they both say they hope to steal a moment here and there to catch up and check in, but only on days when there are no games on the schedule.
The U.S. and Canada are the heavy favorites to play in the final for gold for a third-straight Olympic Games. Rigsby and Turnbull have considered how they might handle the strain a game like that could put on their friendship.
“One team is going to be winning and one team is going to be losing. Either way, it’s going to be an emotional thing,” Rigsby admits.
“I imagine for whoever wins, the other person will say, Congratulations, I’m proud of you, and then that would be it for a couple days or a week, Turnbull said.
“At least until whoever lost is able to put it in the back of their mind and get ready to go back to work and get back to the Olympics again for another opportunity.”