The Star Rookies

Women’s hockey is in good hands in Canada—maybe too good for the game’s Olympic future
The Star Rookies
Photograph by Brian Howell

For more than a decade, Hayley Wickenheiser has dominated women’s hockey the way Wayne Gretzky once did the men’s game. But something unexpected happened in Vancouver: Wickenheiser and the rest of Canada’s star veterans—Jayna Hefford, Caroline Ouellette and Kim St-Pierre—were shut out from the tournament all-star team. Honours, instead, went to three standout rookies: 23-year-old goaltender Shannon Szabados, who blanked the Americans 2-0 in the gold medal final, 18-year-old phenom Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored both goals in the game, and Meghan Agosta, 23, who set up the second goal and was named tournament MVP, with 15 points including nine goals—a single-Olympic record. It was a symbolic, yet striking passing of the torch.

In some ways, the final—with a crowd as loud, at points, as it was during Canada’s men’s quarter-final a day earlier—foreshadowed the future of the women’s game. For Canada, it’s in good hands. Yet it’s precisely the deep and growing talent pool that may prove the game’s undoing in the Olympics. Just hours before the Canada-U.S. showdown, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge indicated that his patience with the women’s game is wearing thin. Unless the competition gets serious, and fast, it seems Rogge will see to it that the women’s game joins softball on the Olympic discard heap.

Currently, Canada and the U.S. stand alone, head and shoulders above the competition; that was never in question ahead of these Games. But Canada’s third-straight Olympic gold sure was. Less than a year ago, at the World Championships in Finland, Canada suffered an embarrassing 4-1 loss to the U.S.—the second straight year Canada handed the world crown to its archrivals. After the loss, Mel Davidson, Canada’s head coach, pinned the blame on herself. “Coaching is coaching, and if you don’t perform, you don’t go on,” she told reporters in Hämeenlinna. When you fail, “you have to look from the top down,” she later told Maclean’s. “Maybe Hockey Canada has to look at a change.” At the time, just nine months until Vancouver, Team Canada, famed for its machine-like precision, seemed to be coming undone.

But Hockey Canada stuck with Davidson, who turned her attention to rebuilding. The first step began on May 25, 2009, in the tiny, northern B.C. communities of Dawson Creek and Tumbler Ridge, where 26 Olympic hopefuls embarked on a gruelling, four-week boot camp. It was “basically, one workout after another from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m.,” says winger Jennifer Botterill.

Days began with a jog along Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway. The women then worked out in a neighbouring soccer field before hitting the ice for a brutal, two-hour practice; after lunch, they did off-ice drill work—working on their shooting, footwork and stick-handling—designed to bring them back to basics. After dinner, the team worked on flexibility with a yoga instructor or hit the gym for muay thai kick-boxing. There were 45-km bike rides, 10-km runs, wind sprints, and hikes that began with a two-kilometre vertical climb. “We were physically and mentally beating them down,” says Ryan van Asten, Canada’s strength and conditioning coach.

In August, the team moved to Calgary to train together full-time. Still, for all its hard work, in September the team suffered back-to-back losses to the U.S. at the Canada Cup in Vancouver, an Olympic test event. “Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Davidson said at the time. “They keep telling us it’s hard to play in an Olympic Games in your own country. I guess we’re living that right now.”

The team returned to Calgary. Poulin, the youngest on the squad, bunked with fellow Quebecers Ouellette, St-Pierre and Charline Labonté, acquiring “three big sisters,” she told Maclean’s. Agosta, who’s studying criminology at Pennsylvania’s Mercyhurst College—and led the NCAA with 2.44 points per game last season—was one of five college players on the roster who took the year off school to concentrate on the Games. On top of daily practices and off-ice training, the girls began a barnstorming, 30-game series against midget AAA boys’ teams in Alberta, as they’d done in 2002 and 2006. This time, however, Davidson scheduled a much longer series than before. It saw them in Strathmore one night and Grande Prairie the next. The team was forced to battle back from three-goal deficits, overtime and shootouts. In another new twist, one game against each of the league’s 18 teams would count in the standings to ensure a full effort from the boys. In the end, Canada went 20-10 (Wickenheiser made national headlines after putting Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Dion Phaneuf’s younger brother Dane in a headlock after he ran her over behind the net).

On Dec. 21, Canada announced its Olympic roster. Davidson, who wanted two-way players on her blue line, added newcomers with offensive skills, including Montreal’s Catherine Ward, who plays for McGill, and Sudbury’s Tessa Bonhomme. As well, Davidson moved Meaghan Mikkelson—daughter of former NHLer Bill Mikkelson—from forward to defence.

The Star Rookies
Photograph by: Brian Howell (left photo), Jonathan Hayward/ Canadian Press (right photo)

Canada’s coaching staff drove the girls hard until February; the final step in Davidson’s carefully laid plan was a week-long break in Jasper, Alta. The women played pond hockey and had light practices at a local rink; in the evenings, they played cards and watched movies. On Feb. 7, they flew to Vancouver just in time for the opening ceremonies. It was now time to test their preparedness.

The preliminary round of women’s hockey at the Games is not sport; it’s a bloodbath, with Canada and the U.S. laying such pitiless beatings that even the game’s fiercest defenders must cringe. It took Canada, greeted to a seat-shaking ovation, just 99 seconds to score its first goal of the Games against Slovakia. By night’s end, both Agosta and Jayna Hefford had netted hat tricks. The final score? 18-0—beating the record 16 goals Canada racked up against the feckless host Italians in Turin. Two days later, one Swiss player made the sign of the cross stepping onto the ice to face Canada. In the wake of Canada’s historic rout of the Slovaks, it took on special significance, like a last rite before being tossed to the lions. That game ended 10-1 for Canada, giving them a bye to the semifinals.

By then, Canada and the U.S., who have the full resources and backing of their hockey federations, had begun fielding the same questions, about mercy, class and whether their sport should remain in the Olympics at all. U.S. captain Natalie Darwitz addressed what she called the “delicate topic” after her team thumped China 12-1 in its Olympic opener in front of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Republican politician Mitt Romney. Yes, she conceded, women’s hockey could get nixed from the Olympics. But that would be “very unfortunate,” she added. “This is all we have. This is our NHL. This is our Stanley Cup.” Darwitz, in fact, is one of the lucky few: last year, she was named women’s assistant coach of the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Most women play in leagues that offer little more than expense money, eking out a living with part-time work, or riding a hockey scholarship to a university education.

U.S. soccer icon Julie Foudy told Maclean’s she knows how North American hockey players feel: in the ’90s, the U.S. soccer squad was racking up blowouts of its own, with some calling for it to be shelved, too. It’s taken two decades for women’s soccer to achieve some degree of parity, says Foudy, now an ESPN colour commentator; thankfully, she adds, FIFA and the U.S. Soccer Federation supported the women’s game throughout its awkward youth. During the Games, hockey bigwigs like Bob Nicholson, head of Hockey Canada, and René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, came to the defence of the women’s game, urging patience. In the 1930s, Switzerland was beaten 22-0 by Canada, Fasel reminded reporters. In Turin, he added, Switzerland beat Canada 2-0. “It took nearly 70 years for them to reach the same level. The federations have to sit down together and figure out how to help the development of women’s hockey.”

Some argue it’s just a question of fairer funding. “There’s no reason Russia shouldn’t have an outstanding women’s program,” says Team U.S.A.’s Angela Ruggiero, a 192-lb. defenceman who is among the game’s top players. Russia, which bankrolls its female figure skaters, gymnasts and tennis players, has allowed hockey to stagnate—a situation that hasn’t changed in a decade, says Russian forward Iya Gavrilova. Tellingly, its women’s squad first met on Jan. 25, three weeks ahead of the Games. Federation head Vladislav Tretiak—the legendary Soviet goalie—is promising more funding and attention ahead of Sochi. Finland is also promising a new program, and China, which is launching an under-18 program, has improved since it began working with former Finnish national coach Hannu Saintula, who says he communicates with his squad in “basic hockey English.”

Canada got its final lessons on Feb. 24. It held its final practice at East Vancouver’s Britannia Rink a day ahead of the gold medal game, ending, as always, with a half-ice three-on-three. Before heading to the dressing room, the team gathered at centre ice without the coaches. “We’re ready,” Ouellette, an assistant captain, said simply. Ahead of the final, the Americans had been playing up the pressure facing Canada: “They’re the defending gold medallists, they’re the No. 1-ranked team,” said Ruggiero. “I don’t envy Canada. They can deny it as much as they want, but there’s the weight of a nation on them.”

In the game, Canada got off to an ugly start. They looked nervous and disjointed, rattled, perhaps, by the desire to win and the expectations of the sellout crowd of 16,805—the biggest in women’s hockey history. Amidst the sea of red at Canada Hockey Place was Prime Minister Stephen Harper, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell, Wayne and Janet Gretzky, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and Michael J. Fox; Team Canada’s male counterparts watched from the rafters. Steve Yzerman, executive director of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team, spoke to the women ahead of the game.

Davidson did not announce her starting goalie to media; the choice of Szabados, her youngest goalie, who spent five years in the AJHL, a men’s league, came as no surprise: she’s long since proved herself as Canada’s No. 1 netminder. Szabados showed her worth early, with a stunning glove save on Monique Lamoureux. She ended up stopping all 28 shots she faced.

The Star Rookies

At 13:55 in the first period, 34 seconds after Canada killed off a penalty, Botterill skated the puck along the boards before dishing it off to Poulin, who was alone in the slot. Poulin got a one-timer away, firing it high over the shoulder of goaltender Jessie Vetter, the reigning Patty Kazmaier Award winner, which honours the NCAA’s top player. Three minutes later, Poulin, who wears a set of pearls and a gold good-luck charm under her jersey, won a faceoff in the offensive zone. Agosta got the puck back to Poulin, who shovelled it up high into the net. Poulin, despite her youth, is confident and creative with the puck. Harvard, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth are fighting hard for her (in fact, she was forced to change her cellphone number while in Vancouver because so many college recruiters were calling).

Both she and Agosta started as figure skaters before switching to hockey at five and six, respectively. They’re the future of the sport, yet you couldn’t find two more different personalities. Agosta, who has explosive speed, a magnetic attraction to the puck, and more raw talent than anyone in women’s hockey, flatly admits that her goal is to become the greatest player in the game. Poulin, meanwhile, is so shy that she tucks her chin into her shoulder pads during interviews.

As U.S. frustration mounted in the third period, the game got physical. When Thunder Bay’s Haley Irwin crashed into the U.S. net, Kacey Bellamy rammed a glove in her face. Agosta managed to sucker punch Monique Lamoureux—one half of Team U.S.A.’s half-Canadian twins. (When her sister Jocelyne lost her helmet and skated off, she was flattened by Irwin.) The U.S. never gave up. But Canada pushed back, riding them off the puck. Twice, Canada killed off 5-on-3 power plays. When the U.S. did manage to sneak through Canada’s structured defence, Szabados stonewalled them.

Before the clock had even wound down, the first pair of red and black gloves was hurled into the air. The crowd drowned out the horn as Canada piled on Szabados. Their win gave the team its third consecutive gold medal. Davidson, who became the only person to ever coach a Canadian hockey team to back-to-back Olympic championships, remained stone-faced until after she shook hands with U.S. coach Mark Johnson. At the opposite end, some U.S. players wept openly in defeat; later, when they received their silver medals, the mostly Canadian crowd warmly saluted them with the traditional Yank chant—“U-S-A! U-S-A!

Moments after the Maple Leaf was raised to the rafters, a sudden burst of gold fireworks shot five stories into the air, sending another bolt through the charged crowd.

Before leaving Canada Hockey Place, a handful of players returned to the ice. Some lay on their backs, gazing up to the rafters, savouring the moment, years in the making, and celebrating, as hockey players do, with beer, cigars and champagne. The party, however, became front-page news when a U.S. reporter ratted the team out to the IOC, which threatened to “investigate,” though later backed down—perhaps after media pointed out that Canada’s beer-swilling gold medallist Jon Montgomery was photographed in Whistler, chugging from a pitcher of beer. Still, the team apologized for its behaviour. Later, dressed in gold runners and matching white jackets with gold arm bands that Nike had made for them, the team arrived at Canada Hockey House for an intimate celebration with their friends and family.

Davidson, who is known for her obsessive preparedness, would admit to having secretly scheduled two games against the Vancouver North West Giants, B.C.’s top midget AAA team, during the Olympics. Even though she’d put her squad through more than 60 games before the Games, she wasn’t satisfied. “We were winning 18-0 and 13-1,” Davidson said with a sly grin. “We had to stay sharp.” Twice, the team snuck out of the athletes’ village under the guise of going to the aquarium. Remarkably, media never got wind of “Operation Aquarium,” even though the Burnaby Winter Club was packed to the gills for both games. It was all part of the plan.