When women’s ice hockey champion and Team Canada forward, Gillian Mary Apps, started Grade Nine at Havergal College in Toronto, somebody told her that you couldn’t wear pants to school.
“I thought, ‘Not even in the winter? That’s crazy,’” says Ms. Apps, 28, who previously attended William Berczy public school in Unionville, Ont., for junior grades. “But I ended up loving the uniform. It was easy; you didn’t have to think about what to wear, or worry about what kind of clothes you had in your closet, so I didn’t mind it at all.”
The six-foot-tall, two-time Olympic gold medalist – with Team Canada in 2006 in Turin, Italy, and again in 2010 in Vancouver – recalls Havergal as a great environment that allowed girls to excel, whether it was in the classroom, in a leadership position or being involved in the arts or sports.
“The advantage of a same-sex school is that you limit the distractions,” Ms. Apps says. “And you have that many more girls to choose from as friends – the entire student body, not just half. But we definitely had boys as friends, too; we were very close with the boys’ schools in the city.”
While she continued to play hockey for the Toronto Aeros outside of school, joining Havergal’s sports teams helped her to meet people and connect right away. Besides ice hockey, she played soccer and basketball for Havergal.
“Being on a team with someone allows you to get to know them on a different level,” Ms. Apps says. “Our hockey team wasn’t very good – we had a very diverse group in terms of ability – but it was fun. The highlight of the season was to play BSS [The Bishop Strachan School] at Maple Leaf Gardens every year.”
By the time Ms. Apps was in Grades 11 and 12, she had begun to play with the national team a little bit, not surprising given her ability and family’s hockey heritage. Her grandfather is Hockey Hall of Fame member Syl Apps and her dad is Syl Apps Jr., a former National Hockey League player.
While Havergal was understanding about the school time she had to miss, her developing talent put her in a difficult position. Two days after she was voted head girl, Ms. Apps was invited to try out for the 2002 Olympics, which meant that she had to move to Calgary for the year.
“I had to turn down being head girl and fast track so I could graduate early [in 2001],” Ms. Apps says. “The support from my teachers and other students was amazing. The school was behind me 100 per cent – just very happy for me and the opportunity I had in front of me. That’s something that I will never forget.”
After Calgary, Ms. Apps moved on to Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H., where she earned a psychology degree while competing on their women’s ice hockey team. During her senior year, she was named both the MVP by the New England Hockey Writers and the 2007 ECAC Player of the Year.
“Those were probably the best four years of my life,” Ms. Apps says. “Being a student athlete at Dartmouth was an incredible experience.”
She also enjoyed the academics, taking a course in almost every department as a freshman just to see what she liked. While she was happy with what she chose, Ms. Apps isn’t sure she’ll ever do anything in that specific field. Right now she just feels lucky to be a full-time female hockey player. Her current goals are making the team for the 2013 women’s world championships in Ottawa and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
“Team Canada is my job essentially,” Ms. Apps says. “We’re trying to train and compete at our best, and achieve our goal of winning gold. The preparation and time we put into that includes mental preparation as well. Having veterans on the team who know what it takes to play in an Olympic Games and to win gold is a huge part of our team. When I was playing in my first Olympics, I looked to our veteran core to lead the way.”
Outside of training or competing, Ms. Apps talks about teamwork at motivational speaking engagements. She also has an endorsement with Nike, which she says helps out because full-time work time isn’t possible given her training and travel schedule. Ms. Apps often visits schools, including Havergal, where she’s impressed by the how confident the students at her alma mater appear to be.
“I realize now how the school prepared us for the next phase of our lives – by the ways the teachers encouraged us to stand up and talk in front of the entire school, whether just to do a little skit or something in the daily assembly,” Ms. Apps says. “All those little things beyond the classroom added to the confidence we gained there. Looking back, that’s what I appreciate the most.”
The question she’s most frequently asked is usually about how to make the national team. Her advice to girls who want to make a career in hockey is to go for it but to keep balance in their lives.
“Don't just play hockey all year long,” Ms. Apps says. “Stay active by playing other sports. Becoming a better athlete will in turn make you a better hockey player.”
Post hockey, Ms. Apps is considering going back to school for an MBA. Off the rink, she loves to cook – salmon and Indian food are favourites – and to be around family and friends.
“Just doing what I do makes me happy,” Ms. Apps says. “I feel very fortunate to be an athlete and have this as my full-time job.”