Anyone who watched the final game would agree that it was intense back and forth action with a great display of speed and skills and foremost, a very physical battle. It was certainly one of the fastest and greatest hockey games I have been part of in my career with the National Team!
If you look at the overtime goal and you know hockey, you will know that Tessa Bonhomme created the goal for us! True that it was perhaps an unlucky turnover on the U.S. part. Meghan Agosta got the bouncing puck near our bench while I was coming on, Tessa realized she was the second player entering the zone and drove to the net as hard as she could taking with her the defense and the forward back-checking.
And this is when you wish players did not necessarily had to touch the puck to get an assist. Not that Tessa would care about that anyways. Tessa is an incredible team player that would do anything for anyone on this team, that would accept any role and do it to the best of her abilities, that would be genuinely happy for other’s success as she would of her own. That breed is rare I must say! Tessa makes me better. She gives me confidence. She makes me feel like I matter. She’s wonderful! She did tell me to shoot more after the 3rd period too so I need to thank her in many ways! Coming off the bench I screamed as loud as I could: ‘’GOS – GOS –GOS’’ (nickname of Agosta) She probably thought ‘’who is this loud and obnoxious person’’, yet still decided to pass me the puck! I knew the U.S. had players coming back hard so wanted to release my shot as quickly as possible. Not only did Tessa take everyone to the net but she also screened the U.S. goalie who never saw the shot going between her pads.
It took me a second to comprehend that the puck had actually gone in! Everything happened so quickly, I remembered jumping into Catherine Ward’s arms’ I remember Tessa also jumping in and Agosta. I never knew what it felt to be under a pile of players before Saturday night, never truly understood before the way Kim St-Pierre talked about 2002 in Salt Lake city when she got slammed into her own net by our whole team celebrating our 3-2 Olympic gold medal win. Saturday, I never wanted that moment to end, it felt unreal and magical. Tessa Bonhomme appeared to have difficulty breathing under probably what felt like 1000 lbs on us and was worried because she could not hear me, worried that I was suffocating under there. But I was just enjoying every second of that moment not really realizing yet what we had just accomplished! I probably stayed on my back lying like a Star for a while because different teammates kept jumping on as others would get up!
Thinking back at our journey to the gold medal, losing 9 to 2 against the U.S. in the opening game of the World Championship was a dreadful nightmare. It was the worst loss ever suffered by our team at the World Championship. As Canadian hockey players, we felt like we had let each other down and disappointed our country. ‘’What happened?’’ I am not quite sure. Sometimes you feel like you are ready and you have done everything possible to prepare for this moment and when it comes you feel like you have a fridge on your back and no energy. Maybe we spent too much energy elsewhere that day and when the puck dropped, we were not ready for battle. The U.S. has an amazing team with so much speed and skills. We cannot say anymore that we are better or have more depth and just have to play our best to win. Now, on any given day, anyone can win. They have an incredible amount of talent and players as dedicated to be the best they can be just like our team has. I am not making excuses. That day, we simply did not show up ready to play and they took advantage of it right away. They were connecting their passing while we could not. They were physical while we got pushed around and watched them.
The great news is that we were right back at it the next day facing Finland for the 2nd game of 3 in our preliminary round. We wanted to forget about the U.S. game as quickly as possible. Peter Jensen, our team psychologist, told us we had already paid enough for our failure to be ready to compete, and it would be a huge mistake to pay more by giving away some of our confidence too. We wanted to stay in the present, not dwell on mistakes of the past and prepare to create a greater future. We were better against Finland but still it was not as great as we must take each other accountable for.
Looking back now, that loss and the adversity we faced early on was the single best thing that could have happened to our team. It clearly showed our flaws and was a statement to how much work we still had in front of us in order to get another chance at winning the tournament. But most importantly, it forced us to have difficult discussions about the synergy of our team and about whether or not our team members were willing to accept any role, whether big or little for the betterment of the team. After the Finland game, each player spoke and it was very emotional, some experienced players talking about veterans they played with over their careers that would have done anything to wear the Maple Leaf, anything to win! Jayna Hefford spoke about the Cassie Campbell, Vicky Sunhohara, Lori Dupuis. Could have added so many more like France St-Louis and Therese Brisson! They once dominated and where the game changers and then as younger players came on, they accepted tougher roles with grace always leading by example and playing with the fire and resiliency players before them showed to build the tradition of excellence our program has had. Some of our young players emotionally shared what it meant for them to have made the team. I think it was a good reminder for all of us of how bad we once wanted this, how we did everything to make it to this level, how it is easy to sometimes take it for granted, how it is not enough to just make it here but that once you do, the real responsibility starts, the one of making each other and our country proud.
Accepting any role was a subject that came back over and over again and although that is so easily said, it is much harder to live up to. We had 7 defense players dressed during our 5 games with most only 6 players getting to play. Early in the tournament during our 3-2 win against Finland, Tessa Bonhomme was our 7th D and her positive attitude and leadership during that game really inspired our young players to follow in her footsteps when came their time to sacrifice personal happiness to prioritize team goals. The loss put us in an unfamiliar position giving us the status of ‘’underdog.’’ Many media spoke over and over about the domination of team USA and I am quite sure that most of the U.S. fans that were at the first game did not think we would be of much resistance. We even had a Finnish player say in the media that she thought her team could not beat the U.S., but that they could beat Canada. I must take a few seconds to thank her for this motivational material to not only beat team Finland in the semifinal game, but given us the fire within to prove we could compete with the Americans. Being the underdogs in the eye of others is not such a bad thing after all: no pressure; no expectations; you can only surprise by over achieving. But as athletes, the heaviest weight is often the one we ourselves put on our own shoulders accepting nothing but victory. We knew we had a young team and appeared nervous early on against the Americans. When we recovered a little it was too late. Its one thing to lose badly while playing an ok game and its an whole different thing when you lose and you know that you simply did not display anything close to what you are capable of. The second was our reality! We knew we simply did not show up. There was not one person in our dressing room that could say she had a good game. Our captain Wick spoke about the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and how we embraced the underdog status there and got it done despite a series of 8 consecutive losses, a hostile crowd, and 28 minutes of penalty. Heff, Wick and I are the only ones left from that team and thinking back, being the underdogs going in was so powerful, giving us strong quiet confidence, in a ‘’not afraid of anything’’ type of way. And that was and is deadly!
In my opinion, two aspects strongly needed to be improved if we wanted to win the championship. First, we needed to play with a greater level of confidence. We needed to appear like we all wanted to have the puck by demanding it, and like we all believed we could be the difference maker, that way everyone believes they can and will contribute to our success! Our passing game had to become better and so did our team play as a unit of 5 on the ice. Secondly, we needed to display in our game more grit, intensity and passion. We knew we had not made our country proud and for that, we, the players, were the only one to blame. We received continual messages of support through Twitter or Facebook from people across Canada saying ‘’We still believe’’ and that meant the world to us. We lost Haley Irwin during the first game to a bad ankle sprain and that was a huge loss for our team. Haley plays with a chip on her shoulder and is not afraid of anyone. She is great at getting under our opponents’ skin. She is the type of player you want on your side because she is not fun to play against and most importantly because she will always have your back. Each of us needed to play with a bit more of ‘’Irwin,’’ of her, in our game. We gave the Americans way too much respect, time and space to use their speed and skills at will. Our coaching staff motto for our team this year was ‘’Skills and Sand Paper.’’ We wanted to display a high level of skills, which we have when we have the confidence to play free. The Sand Paper part is a commitment we each had to make to add an edge to our game. To have the courage to bump and push while remaining disciplined, be fierce, take blows and not retaliate, to block shots, to play strong defense each shift, to play with pride and passion.
Another turning point for our team was our game against Russia. We absolutely destroyed them 14-1 and it is not because of the score that it helped our team’s path to victory. Towards the end of the game, the Russian players started playing very physical, cheap some might say. The referees were not making any calls and we could feel it was degenerating. It started with Bailey Bram and Meghan Agosta standing up for one another and not taking the blows anymore. Bailey is a rookie on our team and Agosta is probably the least violent person we have but to see them taking care of one another was powerful. Unfortunately, Johnny got blindsided and Wick crossed checked in the face in the next shift in a continuation of the escalade of violence. Its not in my nature and it probably did not make my dad proud but I went after the player and got a pretty good clear body check out of it and she got to sit on her ass for a few seconds. I even got away with it when I was sure I was going to the penalty box! I have a pretty nice picture to show it! In our last shift, Poulin and I stuck up for one another. It was a series of players showing they cared for one another that brought our team to a new level of togetherness.
We faced Finland in the semifinal and it was great for our team to get another high quality game where we would need to perform at our best and beat a strong goalie in order to win. We wanted to start the game well and our two goals in the first 5 minutes really showed we had attained a whole new level of concentration towards our end goal. It was a good 5-1 win for our team and we really felt like we had gotten better every game during the tournament. We were ready for the challenge ahead, a second look at the Americans in the only game that truly mattered. Now we knew exactly how we had to play, knew the hostile crowd. We had no reason to be afraid whatsoever.
The day of the final game, we had a short pre-game skate since our game was at 7pm. After the practice each line met with the coaching staff! We were each given really specific roles in the final. The line of Marie-Philip Poulin, Jayna Hefford and I had the role to stop the Lamoureux twins and Kelli Stack’s line who had been deadly against us in the first game and against anyone they faced in the tournament. It was an amazing challenge for the three of us who immediately embraced it with pride. We wanted to not only shut them down 5 on 5, but do all in our power to end up on the plus side, meaning we would need to at least score one. I have faced Kelli Stack 7 times this season with the Montreal Stars and she is perhaps the most deceptive player in the world. Her ability to read the play and find players that are open anywhere on the ice is truly impressive. If two players go to her, she will find the one that is open and make you pay. The Lamoureux twins’ chemistry can probably be compared to the one of the Sedins brothers. And you can add to that that the fierceness of let’s say Chris Pronger. It is an unfortunate combo of intangibles for team Canada and it makes them so hard to stop! If you give them any time and space they will tear into it. I love playing with Heff and Pou. They are certainly two of the best players in the world. We know how much skills they have, but also an undeniable work ethic that they bring each day whether it is a practice or a game or a workout. I also love that they are committed to excel on both sides of the ice, taking pride to being as good defensively as they are in the fun offensive part of the game. I have so much faith in both of them and they enable me to play freely and with confidence.
Our coaching staff did a fantastic work during our time together. Dan Church, Doug Derraugh and Danielle Goyette believed in us all the way, were patient developing our potential, worked so well together to complement their strengths so in the end, we would be prepared in every aspects of the game. We could feel they loved working together and as players, feeling like your coaching staff is united goes a long way to bring the same harmony in our dressing room. Our coaching staff gave us confidence and the freedom to let creativity be part of our game. Our support staff was also incredible working long hours so we could be at our best!
Our team goals against the U.S. in the final were to Kill the U.S. speed in the neutral zone by back checking well and closing quickly on them to enable our defense to play them tightly. Secondly to play physical and display the ‘’sandpaper’’ attitude we defined our team by. We also wanted to be solid in our defensive zone pressuring them hard and smart. Finally we wanted to keep our energy levels high by outchanging them with quick presences on the ice.
After Dan concluded by telling us how he had appreciated having the chance to work with us and how much we had evolved throughout the tournament making us more than ready to face any challenge ahead of us, he gave the opportunity to Doug to say a few words. Doug played 4 seasons at Cornell University and is now the head coach of the women’s hockey team there. He scored 30 goals in his last collegiate season, which is quite impressive considering he played 32 games. He went on to have a very successful professional career in Europe where he played for 13 years. He told us that what made the dynasty of Canadian hockey worldwide was our willingness to play the game with passion, intensity and grit. When he retired from hockey, he volunteered as a firefighter to see if he could get a similar adrenaline rush than the one he got while scoring an important goal. He never quite told us if the emotions were similar but I am afraid nothing can compare to hockey when you have, like Doug, such a passion for the game and for winning! As an older player, I totally understand that rush, sometimes when I am on the ice for an important goal, I for only a few seconds get chills all over my body because I am so ecstatic and dominated by powerful emotions that I cannot even describe. And I know deep down that nothing in life will provide me with the same sensations so as I have fewest moments like these ahead of me, I try to appreciate all of them.
We were ready for the start of the game and we came out flying, hitting and clawing. We displayed the sandpaper attitude that was lacking in the first game in each shift. We had a really good first period taking the lead 1-0 on a shorthanded goal by Hayley Wickenheiser. We got several good shots on net early on and felt we were putting most of the pressure on them. In the second period, Jayna Hefford scored on a rebound from Meghan Agosta for us to take the lead 2 to 1. Shortly after, Shannon Szabados made two incredible saves to enable us to counter attack, Marie-Philip made a great play on the zone entry to create an opening for me while Jayna Hefford went hard to the net taking a D with her. I shot low and was able to jump on my own rebound to help my team take the lead 3 to 1. Honestly, I thought that we had them then. But we were victims of our own aggressiveness and got into penalty trouble. The U.S. scored 3 unanswered power play goals to take the lead 4 to 3 in the 3rd.
But as we had talked about, we wanted to stay in the moment, no matter what was happening, wining or losing, staying focus on the next shift, one at a time. For me it was important we took the attitude, no matter what happens, we keep coming, waves of white and red all night long, we keep coming! We were determined to never give up, to keep pressuring them until the final buzzer and we did. Meghan Agosta scored a power play goal with only a few minutes to go on a rebound from a nice net drive from Jayna Hefford.
In the dressing room after the 3rd, our head coach Dan Church talked about the fact that we wanted to put pressure on them, we wanted to keep attacking and controlling the puck, and to over communicate so we are intimidating. That’s exactly what we did from the start of overtime. I had a great feeling it would go our way this time. I cannot forget to mention how outstanding Shannon Szabados was in the final. She truly was the difference maker on our side, making one incredible save after the other. She played with so much calm and composure giving us full confidence in front of her. I do not have words to describe how unbelievable she is. The greater the pressure, the more astonishing she plays. On defense, Catherine Ward really led the way with solid defensive play and passes that started incredible offensive rushes for us. She also did a fantastic job mentoring our young D players like Fortino and Rougeau who had excellent first world championships!
Lastly, an important part of our team success was definitely the work of our team sport psychologist Peter Jensen. PJ is an extraordinary and courageous man who battled throat cancer, and a powerful and inspiring leader that seems to know exactly what message to deliver when. And this time again, he, at the exact right timing, forced us to face the fact that we were not aiming in the right direction for a gold medal performance and he helped putting us back on the same path. I am so proud of this team, of our young players like Bailey Bram who gave us veterans so much positive energy by always cheering us on during the final game. Little gestures like that made a huge difference in the end for us to be on the top of the world once again. And it feels so good right now…
Thank you for reading