OLYMPICS

ATLONGLASTGOLD

Canadian women grab the country’s first Olympic hockey title in 50 years

James Deacon March 4 2002
OLYMPICS

ATLONGLASTGOLD

Canadian women grab the country’s first Olympic hockey title in 50 years

James Deacon March 4 2002

ATLONGLASTGOLD

Canadian women grab the country’s first Olympic hockey title in 50 years

It was raining sticks and helmets and tears of joy when an avalanche of jubilant teammates buried Kim St-Pierre. She was the perfect target—heavily padded, the 23-year-old goaltender could absorb the crush. And she had played brilliantly in Canadas hard-fought 3-2 victory over the United States in the gold-medal Olympic hockey final. St-Pierre stopped 25 shots, many from in close, and smothered countless rebounds when danger lurked.

Away from the pile of seething humanity, someone handed defender Geraldine Heaney a flag. The 34-year-old veteran held it out in front of her and looked at it for a second and then another second before she began skating around the ice with it over her head. The occasion was not lost on her— shed suffered a knee injury just one month before the Games were to begin, and nearly missed the chance to be a part of it all. And there was something else. “I stepped on the ice tonight and thought, Wow, this is go-

ing to be my last game,’ ” a smiling Heaney said afterward. “Even in the warm up, I stayed out there as long as I could.” The only woman to have won gold medals at every women’s World Hockey Championship—seven since 1990—looked down at the Olympic gold medal cupped in her hands and added: “And now this...”

For both teams, there could not have been a more emotion-charged game. The Canadians had been favoured in 1998 and were devastated to lose that one, just as the Americans were inconsolable last week after going into the final as heavy favourites. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” Canadian centre Hayley Wickenheiser said, “so it’s really sweet.” Canada had lost its last eight games against the U.S., but the result here was no fluke. Led by Wickenheiser and Vicky Sunohara, Canadian penalty-killers withstood the vaunted U.S. power play and the bizarre and one-sided officiating of American ref-

eree Stacey Livingston, who at one point called eight straight minors against Canada, many of them plainly unwarranted. If anything, though, the Canadians gained strength with each successful kill.

But the key to victory may have been a change in strategy by coach Daniele Sauvageau, who listened to the pleas from her players and abandoned her typically conservative style. In past games, she insisted on playing defensively to protect even early one-goal leads. In the final, she let the forwards keep attacking, and it paid off on Jayna Hefford s dramatic breakaway with only one second left in the second period. That goal gave Canada a 3-1 lead and was, U.S. coach Ben Smith said, “the killer—that changed the entire game.”

When someone writes the definitive womens hockey history, the 2002 Winter Games may turn out to be a pivotal event. Finland and Sweden showed signs they were beginning to catch up to the dominant North American squads, and greater parity is vital if the sport is to gain widespread respect. “Womens hockey has come so far from when we started,” Heaney said. And especially for Canada, Salt Lake City

marked a generational turning point. Veterans such as Heaney and Cassie Campbell played key roles, but the team’s great strength was its core of mid-twentysomethings, led by St-Pierre—named the tournament’s top goaltender—and the incomparable Wickenheiser, the top forward.

There were issues for the men’s tournament too—it’s still unclear whether the National Hockey League will agree to release its players for the 2006 Winter Games. But players weren’t dwelling on the future here. For the women, a blowout victory party came first, while the men, after beating Belarus, advanced to a gold-medal showdown with the United States. Whatever, the women had won Canada’s first Olympic hockey gold medal in 50 years, and they were bursting with pride. “To be able to do something like this and share it with 20 other girls,” said forward Tammy Lee Shewchuk, “well, it is just an incredible feeling.” James Deacon in Salt Lake City

James Deacon