SPORTS

The girls go wild

How the Canadian women’s hockey team came to dominate the world

JONATHON GATEHOUSE March 6 2006
SPORTS

The girls go wild

How the Canadian women’s hockey team came to dominate the world

JONATHON GATEHOUSE March 6 2006

The girls go wild

How the Canadian women’s hockey team came to dominate the world

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team fell behind early in their biggest game of the year. Just 59 seconds in, Charline Labonté gave up a fat rebound, and before she could react, the puck was bouncing off the twine behind her. Outshot in the first period, Team Canada managed to pull even in its final minute with a power-play goal—Gillian Apps banging in the rebound off Hayley Wickenheiser’s slapper from the point. They were outshot again in the second frame, 13-9, but Gina Kingsbury scored the only goal, taking a beautiful pass from Gillian Ferrari for a clear breakaway, and beating the goalie through the five-hole. In the third, Labonté sparkled, turning away 15 shots, and Katie Weatherston added an insurance marker. It was a hard-fought 3-1 victory.

The capacity crowd at the Black Gold Centre in Leduc, Alta., gave the women a standing ovation. Their opponents, the Schwab GM Oil Kings—the top midget AAA boys team in the province—presented gifts: handmade luggage tags for the trip to Turin. It was an emotional Saturday night in late January—the last time Team Canada was really tested on their path to a second straight Olympic gold.

Melody Davidson, Team Canada’s head coach, will never be described as happy-golucky. Behind the bench in Turin, she wore a permanent scowl. Even as her team was exploding on the ice, sticks, helmets and gloves flying high in the air as they rushed to embrace their goaltender, she was delivering firm handshakes to her staff—although braver ones managed to steal a brief hug. But Davidson, who never got to play hockey growing up in tiny Oyen, Alta., did have a plan to deliver the gold. One that her players followed to the letter, and that transformed them into the most dominant team in women’s hockey history.

The scouting started almost immediately after the victory in Salt Lake City. Davidson came on board in spring 2004, first splitting time between the national team and her job coaching the women’s team at Cornell University, then taking a leave of absence for the Olympic year. Unlike the men’s team, there was no cattle-call training camp. Out of the 65,000 women playing hockey in Canada, Davidson’s short list had just 27 names—15 of them veterans from the 2002 gold medal squad. The hopefuls first got together for a three-week mini-camp last June in P.E.I, full

of fitness testing and lung-busting drills. There was even a team triathlon. “I thought I was going to die in the pool,” recalls Labonté, not a natural swimmer. “The camp was hell—I wanted to quit. I was like, why the hell am I playing?”

In August, the team “centralized,” with all the hopefuls moving to Calgary to train and play full-time. Becky Kellar, a stalwart on defence since 1997, brought her eight-monthold son Owen and his nanny, leaving her husband back home in Burlington, Ont. All fall

What parity? Team Canada is now 0-2 against everyone except the U.S.

and winter, Owen accompanied the team on the road, playing with his 26 new “aunties.” Kellar, 31, had played in the 2004 World Championship when she was two months pregnant, and returned to play in the 2005 Worlds, five months after Owen’s birth. She didn’t bring him to Turin, figuring that at 15 months, he was too young to appreciate the moment. But mommy guilt was a constant shopping companion. “I’ve already bought him the mascot, the coin set and a little pair of Pumas,” Kellar said before the tournament even began. “I’m

dying right now, I miss him so much.”

Davidson packed the schedule with 43 games between the end of August and late January. In international play, Canada went 19-0-2, sweeping the Finns and Swedes, and taking eight out of 10 against its perennial—read only—rival, the U.S. The last matchup was on New Year’s Day in Winnipeg, a 5-3 victory for the Americans. But the bigger part of the plan was the 22 games against the Alberta midget AAA squads— teams of big, physical teenagers, on track to graduate to major junior, then perhaps pro careers. The experiment didn’t start well. In its first five games, Canada went 1-1-3, and was outscored 20 to 7, including a 7-2 pasting by the Red Deer Optimist Rebels. Trailing in the seventh game against Strathmore, on an October afternoon, Davidson let fly during the second intermission. “I just laid into them,” she says. “I told them if they were waiting to play Sweden or the U.S. to try and prove something to me, they were going to be long gone by that time.” It was a turning point. The third period was better, and later

that week they reeled off consecutive wins.

Team Canada ended up with a .500 record against the boys’ squads, going 10-10-2. ‘T was hoping for .750,” says Davidson. But she liked what she saw, especially in the last three games in mid-January, a 7-1 win against the Calgary Northstars, then a 7-3 victory over Fort Saskatchewan, and finally the nail-biter against Leduc. That Saturday night, she looked down the bench and felt it all come together. “I saw so much trust, from the players to each other, from the players to us,” she says. “As a coach it was one of those moments where you say, wow, we’re really on track.” The gold medal was there for the taking.

The fans were outnumbered by the reporters at Vancouver’s GM Place, last Dec. 21, for the official announcement of the Canadian men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams. But hundreds of thousands tuned in to the live TV coverage—though most were watching to see if Sidney Crosby would be named. The women, 20 players and one alternate, were all present, proudly wearing their red jerseys. Schoolkids stood in for the men, even though four of the squad— Todd Bertuzzi, Ed Jovanovski, Jarome Iginla, and Robyn Regehr—were at or near the rink, as the Canucks played the Flames that night. Paring down the women’s roster was wrenching for all. Dana Antal and Kelly Béchard, two of the Salt Lake veterans, didn’t make the final cut. Sami Jo Small, the 2002 gold medal goalie, would be going—but as the third-stringer. The Turin squad would be a mix of proven leadership—Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette, Cassie Campbell, Vicky Sunohara, and raw rookies.

The verdicts were delivered the day before in one-on-one meetings in Davidson’s Calgary office. The order was determined by

age—oldest to the youngest. Goyette, who would celebrate her 40th birthday 11 days before the opening ceremonies, went first. Meghan Agosta, who would tum 19 during the Olympics, had to wait until everyone else was finished. Among the young bloods: Sarah Vaillancourt, 21, from Sherbrooke, Que.,Weatherston, 22, from Thunder Bay, Ont., and Apps, 22, the scion of a famed NHL family. Her father Syl Apps Jr. had a 10-year career with the Rangers, Penguins and Kings, finishing with 606 NHL points. Her late grandfather, Hall of Famer Syl Sr., won the Calder Trophy and three Stanley Cups with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Apps, a bruising winger, inherited the family scor-

ing touch, but definitely not the gende spirit that won her grandfather the Lady Byng Trophy as the least penalized player in 1942. Her linemate Wickenheiser calls her “Dave,” after another power forward, Dave Andreychuk. “She just sort of stands in front of the net and people can’t move her. She’s scored goals off of her butt this year, and things bounce off her into the net,” says Wickenheiser.

After the last Olympics, Wickenheiser, the best women’s player in the world, went to Finland to play with a men’s second division team. In 23 games with HC Salamat, she notched two goals and nine assists. The team earned a promotion to the first division, and when the next season started, Wickenheiser found herself nailed to the bench. She returned home unhappy after 10 games, but with some valuable lessons. Now, the midget AAA games had given her teammates a taste of the same. “I really do think that in terms of speed, physical play, making quick decisions, those games really helped us,” says Jennifer Botterill. Just how much would become clear in Turin.

It takes just one minute and 36 seconds of Olympic play for Caroline Ouellette to score Canada’s first goal. Eighteen seconds later, she adds another. By the end of the first period against the host Italians, she has three, and Canada leads 5-0. At game’s end, the Canadians have peppered the Italian goalkeepers with 66 shots, scoring 16 times. Canada’s Kim St-Pierre records a shutout, facing just five shots. Wickenheiser gets a hat trick, Apps has a five-point night, Cherie Piper tallies six assists. Still, Italian goalie Debora Montanari, so tiny that her head sits level with the crossbar, is beaming after the game. There’s no shame in losing to the best. Her coach, Markus Sparer, has a different perspective: “I’m happy to see no one was hurt.” The next night, the Russians—a big, physical team—prove no more of a challenge. Agosta records a hat trick on her birthday, and her “Kid” linemates—Weatherston and Vaillancourt—score one each. Bodies, mostly Russian, are flying. In the third, Tatiana Burma slams Wickenheiser into the boards from behind. Apps then levels Burina. While she sits on the ice, Piper delivers a cross-check for good measure. During her penalty, Apps sits casually, legs crossed. Charline Labonté is in net. Her parents, Pierre and Diane, and her brother Louis, watch from the stands. Diane averts her eyes every time the Russians shoot. “It’s always been like that, but it gets worse each time,” she says. “I can hardly stand to go to the arena.” She needn’t worry. Labonté makes 13 saves en route to a 12-0 victory.

Back home, Team Canada is being accused of “running up the score” against weakling opponents, a breach of etiquette. Don Cherry rips them on TV. Star U.S. defenceman Angela Ruggiero accuses Canada of doing a disser-

vice to women’s hockey. Davidson’s explanation: if the top two teams have identical records going into the gold medal, goal differential will be the tiebreaker for home ice advantage— the right to last line change. She and other team officials are also receiving dozens of nasty emails. After Canada’s final preliminary game—an 8-1 thumping of Sweden— Davidson defends her team. “I know what they want in the end, and what the country wants in the end,” she says. “We’re the only ones who know what that feels like right now.” In the opening round, Canada has outscored its opponents 36-1. But in the absence of challenges on the ice, they’ve found a rallying point off of it. The walls of their dressing room are plastered with the messages of support that are now far outnumbering complaints. The only score that counts, they say, is the one at the end of the gold medal game.

The state of women’s hockey is not exactly a preoccupation for the media and members of the International Ice Hockey Federation. Everyone assumes Canada and the U.S. will face off for the gold medal, just like they did in 2002, and 1998. On the day of the semi-finals, the UHF hosts a media open house at its lavish Olympic headquarters. In the dining room—three types of wine glasses, silverware and white linen on the tables—the walls are decorated with photos of pivotal moments in men’s tournaments. At the press conference there are a dozen questions

To prepare, the team played 22 games— against really big teenage boys

about the NHLers before anyone asks about the women: how long before the IOC drops a sport with such an obvious competitive imbalance from the Games? “It took 64 years for Sweden to beat Canada in the men’s competition,” says UHF president René Fasel. “You have to be patient. It will be different in Vancouver, we will have much stronger teams.”

The wait turns out to be only about six hours. Sweden beats the U.S. 3-2 in a shootout thriller, advancing to the gold medal game. It’s the first time the U.S. has ever lost to anybody but Canada. And it’s the game that saves women’s hockey. Later that evening, Team Canada breezes past the Finns, 6-0. As usual, the team lets up a little in the third, concentrating on “the little things”—breakouts, cycling the puck down low, option plays, essentially treating the competition like a practice.

All season long, the Swedish team has been watching Miracle, Hollywood’s 2004 treatment of the 198O U.S. men’s team triumph over the Soviets at Lake Placid. They’ve memorized the dialogue, and even recreated the U.S. drills on the ice. But they’ll need the kind of help Charlton Heston’s Moses got escaping the Egyptians in The Ten Commandments

to wrestle the gold away from Canada. Prior to the final, Sweden and Canada had played eight times in 2005-06. Canada won every time, and the cumulative score was 47-7 It’s clear Davidson never envisioned playing anyone but the U.S. for the gold. Her team’s massive goal differential turns out to be meaningless. Under the rules, Sweden gets home ice advantage because Canada enjoyed last change when they played in the round robin.

On the day before the game, Team Canada forward Gina Kingsbury and her family are getting a slice of pizza when a man grabs her wallet and takes off. Kingsbury chases him down in the street and grabs him. He’s so frightened that he surrenders the wallet without a fight. It’s an omen.

The mystery of whether Canada will be able to solve Kim Martin, the Swedish goaltender who stoned the Americans, is solved three minutes and 15 seconds into the game when Apps cruises around the net, fights off two checkers, and slides in a backhand to make it 1-0. The Canadians win every foot race, and every battle along the boards. Their passes are crisp, their defence suffocating. The final score is 4-1, with Canada outshooting the Swedes 26-8. There’s only the illusion of parity in women’s hockey. The reality is, there is Canada—now 123-0-2 against all other teams but the Americans—and everyone else.

After the raising of the Maple Leaf to the rafters of the Palasport Olimpico, Team Canada has one final meeting. They take some photos, link arms and sing Take Me Home, Country Roads-somewhere along the way it became a “team thing”—before facing the media. Danielle Goyette announces that it would be her Olympic swan song. It is also probably the end for Vicky Sunohara, 35, and perhaps 32-year-old Cassie Campbell. Wickenheiser, the tournament’s scoring leader with 17 points, admits she’s been playing with a broken right hand, receiving injections to freeze it before every game. Her linemate Piper tallied 15 points in five games. Apps got 14, and the same number of penalty minutes.

It looked easy, but Davidson says no one but the team will ever understand how much work it took. How careers, friends and family took a back seat. How they continued to push themselves. “These women wear the Canadian flag on every part of their bodies,” she says. “Everybody has to be proud of them, and nobody should question them.” Cheryl Pounder, who burst into tears when the gold was placed around her neck, didn’t make Nagano but was part of the Salt Lake City squad. For her, the second gold is just as sweet. “It’s an unbelievable feeling,” she says. “If you could stop time, you could stop it right here for me and I would hang out for a decade.” Judging by how much better she and her teammates are than anyone else in the world, she might just get her wish. M