Representing an age of achievement where every player that graced the ice helped contribute to the game’s mythology, the 1998 Nagano Winter Games also served as a coming-out party for many players making their international debut. Among them was Canada’s Becky Kellar, part of a fierce defensive unit that was headlined by future Hockey Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney.
Raised in Hagersville, Ontario, Kellar’s earliest years on the ice were spent competing in ringette. Akin to Cherie Piper, who would call Kellar a teammate at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, both would make the transition from ringette to ice hockey, forging a blazing path forward. In retirement, Kellar would remain committed to ringette, giving her time to the Burlington Blast program.
Prior to joining Canada’s Centralization in the autumn of 1997, Kellar graduated from the prestigious Brown University, ranking sixth all-time in program history. Competing in varsity ice hockey for legendary coach Digit Murphy, capturing three consecutive ECAC regular season championships, she was also exceptional off the ice, establishing herself as one of the Ivy League’s premier softball players. Positioned at second base, Kellar would gain a pair of First Team All-Ivy League selections, while ranking as the program’s all-time hits leader, complementing her three All-Ivy honors in hockey.
Coincidentally, Kellar was not the only two-sport star from Brown that was part of the historic event at Nagano. Calling Kellar a teammate on both the ice hockey and softball teams, Katie King would land a spot on the US national team, adding to Brown’s proud athletic legacy. In addition, alum Tara Mounsey would compete for the US while Chie Chie Sakuma would don host country Japan’s jersey at Nagano.
Before Kellar could share in making history with these distinguished alums from her collegiate career, an extensive commitment involved nearly six months of preparation, involving an endless flurry of practices, exhibition games and conditioning. Among a gathering of elite talent from throughout Canada, Centralization required a tremendous sacrifice, involving players relocating to Calgary during this time.
Although the final roster for Canada’s team was determined before the Holiday season, the revelation for the selected players involved an individual process, such solitude adding to the feeling of anticipation. Undoubtedly, emotions of both excitement and relief encompassed the sense of elation when players such as Kellar was congratulated and handed the Canadian jersey, with a number allocated to them,
“It was a long day waiting to hear if we made the team! They gave us each meeting times to be at the rink, we came in the back door and waited in the dressing room until the coaches were ready for us, then we were led up to the board room. It was probably the longest walk of my life!
I walked into the room and Coach Ray Bennett just smiled and said congratulations. It almost felt like a dream. I was so excited and could not wait to call my parents.”
For Kellar, that cherished dream of competing on the world’s biggest stage took one much more important step to becoming a reality with participation at the Opening Ceremonies. As Kellar and her fellow Canadian athletes were decked out in the official gear designed by Roots, quickly becoming the most popular gear among the competing nations in Nagano, it was an opportunity to absorb the spectacle.
Considering that Nagano was all the first Winter Games to feature NHL athletes compete in the men’s tournament, the reality was that it also allowed for a unique chapter in sporting equality as the women of the game were able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their NHL counterparts.
Providing validation for all the years spent in the rinks, dedicated in the effort to redefine cultural convention, it was a key moment in Kellar’s transformation into a world-class athlete. This sense of achievement was also part of a much more profound narrative, as the hopes and dreams of women such as OWHA President Fran Rider, long-time hockey advocate "Hurricane" Hazel McCallion and Samantha Holmes, through her admirable letter writing campaigns, became a reality, providing a shared attainment for all participants in Nagano.
“The opening ceremonies were amazing and one of the parts of the Olympics I looked forward to the most, however, it was stepping on the ice for the first game that made me realize my Olympic dream had come true.”
Part of a defensive unit that was headlined by future Hockey Hall of Famer Geraldine Heaney, plus Therese Brisson, who gained an element of awe for rapidly skating backwards, they were part of a group of veterans that provided Kellar with inspiring role models. In later years, it was a responsibility that Kellar would proudly take on, becoming the first Canadian-born blueliner to appear in four consecutive Winter Games tournaments.
“I think there were a lot of veterans that I looked up that year. It was my first time in the program and they made me feel welcome.”
For Kellar and the rest of the pioneering Canadian roster, the enthusiastic anticipation concerning the first game would be realized on February 8, 1998. Facing off against host country Japan, Kellar would experience the thrill of two milestones in one day. Not only did said game represent Kellar’s debut with the national team, she also experienced the jubilation of her first Winter Games goal.
Already boasting a 7-0 advantage, as six different competitors scored for Canada, Kellar would registered the eighth goal of the game at the 16:14 mark of the second. Of note, there was a shared sense of history as Vicky Sunohara, who logged the assists on Kellar’s landmark goal, earned her first point in Winter Games play.
In the third period, Kellar and Geraldine Heaney would gain the assists on a power play marker by France St. Louis, also her first goal in Winter Games play. By game’s end, 10 different members of Canada’s contingent logged at least one goal, as more than 4,500 at Aqua Wing witnessed the largest margin of victory at Nagano. Prevailing by a 13-0 tally, the final score was not as important as the feeling of history that took place, becoming an integral part of Canadian women’s hockey lore.
“I think I was mainly excited before the first game. It was nice to be able to contribute to the offence in that game.”
Gaining a podium finish at Nagano, it would serve as the springboard to an amazing series of accomplishments that established Kellar as one of the greatest blueliners to don Canada’s colors. Her proceeding presence in the Winter Games would include three consecutive gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010). Fittingly, her last gold medal would take place on home soil in Vancouver, as the Canadians became the first host country to capture women’s hockey gold.
Adding luster to this golden achievement was the fact that she shared this success with Jennifer Botterill (who also made her national team debut at Nagano), Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser, all teammates from that transformative time in 1998. In the direct aftermath of Nagano, Kellar’s prominence continued to shine. Contributing towards the Beatrice Aeros reaching the championship game of the 1998 Esso Nationals, the predecessor to the Clarkson Cup.
With the dawn of professional women’s ice hockey, Kellar would also star in both the original NWHL and the CWHL, becoming a franchise player and significant drawing card for the Burlington Barracudas. Of note, the municipality of Burlington recognized her as its Female Athlete of the Year, and inducted her into its local Sports Hall of Fame in April 2017.
Such local honors also include a unique pair of coincidences. Tim Bothwell, who was part of Melody Davidson’s coaching staff when Canada’s women captured hockey gold at the 2006 Torino Winter Games was also part of the same Hall of Fame Class in 2017. Testament to Kellar’s impact as a local hero and role model, Renata Fast, a blueliner who has gained an invitation to Canada’s Centralization for 2017-18 captured Burlington’s Female Athlete of the Year Award in 2017.
Other unique achievements included the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013, entry into the Brown Bears Hall of Fame, complemented by recognition among Wilfrid Laurier University’s 100 Alumni of Achievements, where she earned a Master’s Degree.Among such a remarkable accumulating of well-deserved accolades, having been part of the Nagano Winter Games serves as Kellar’s hallmark. Considering that registration among female players of all ages expanded dramatically following the historic event, there is no question that players such as Kellar represented the game’s ideals.
For a generation of young blueliners, whether it was like Fast in Burlington, or throughout the nation, growing up in the hopes of emulating Kellar’s heroics, her influence on hockey history was definitely a strong sense of motivation. Having crafted a career that represented a rich palate of achievement, defined by a concerted consistency, positive attitude and an ethereal serenity, she holds a cherished place in the growth of women’s ice hockey at the Winter Games as an integral part of the global sporting conversation,
“It was amazing to be a part of that first Olympics and to see how it impacted the growth of women’s hockey in Canada. Although we did not get the results we wanted that year it was an incredible experience.”
“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”
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