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Canada's coaches Danielle Goyette, left, and Lisa Haley watch from the benchprior to women's pre-Olympic hockey action against the USA in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, December 12, 2013. (LARRY MACDOUGAL/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canada's coaches Danielle Goyette, left, and Lisa Haley watch from the benchprior to women's pre-Olympic hockey action against the USA in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, December 12, 2013. (LARRY MACDOUGAL/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sochi 2014

Women’s Olympic hockey team in bind after coach’s exit Add to ...

Up until a few days ago, Dan Church thought he was doing a good job, the job he always wanted to do.

His Canadian women’s hockey team had come through a rough November, having endured a heavy travel schedule and multiple injuries. The players were on the rebound; there were key games ahead against the rival Americans. It was the final two-month buildup to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

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And then just like that, Church decided he had to resign as head coach. He didn’t even get to say goodbye to his players before leaving Calgary and returning to his home in Toronto.

What happened to Church and what’s next for the national women’s team are the questions that hang over Hockey Canada like a thick haze.

Last Thursday, the organization announced Church had quit hours before the team, still reeling from the news, played the United States (and was roundly beaten 5-1). On Friday, there was still no clear explanation as to what had happened.

Even Church, in a lengthy and ranging interview, offered only glimpses as to why he chose to leave, saying he had been fine earlier this week, until “there were some conversations I didn’t agree with.” (He declined to identify who he spoke with.)

“I wouldn’t say anyone put the decision on me,” Church said when asked if he had been forced to step down. “I’ll own those actions. It came down to a confidence issue – and if you don’t have the confidence of certain people, it’s probably time to move on.”

Were those certain people in the dressing room, in management?

“No, I think it was overall, that was a sentiment in the discussions,” he said. “That’s how I felt and that’s what I based my decision on. … If you had spoken with me last week, I would have said things were moving in the right direction. I still think the team was moving in the right direction, as of two days ago.”

Melody Davidson, the de facto general manager of the women’s team and its former head coach, noted Church’s decision to go “definitely was sudden, for sure.”

It was as much as she wanted to address, other than to say Church’s decision “is not going to change. All we can do now is move forward with the right person to take this team to where it wants to be.”

But who is that person and are they even available at this late stage in the Olympic countdown?

Davidson insisted she would not return behind the bench even if she was identified by Hockey Canada as the best replacement. She also commented on what the national team needed from a head coach who must come in knowing the women’s international game and work with assistants Danielle Goyette and Lisa Haley.

“We’re looking for someone who’s a real good communicator; someone who can contribute to the existing environment and make it better; someone with a strong sense of self,” Davidson said. “This person has to be comfortable in their own skin and yet willing to work with a group.

“We’ve talked about people inside the [Hockey Canada women’s] system and outside it. We’re going to look at our list, put it in order and start contacting people.”

Davidson didn’t offer any names, but the candidates could include Peter Smith, a former head coach of the women’s national team who now coaches at McGill University in Montreal, and Tim Bothwell, a former national team assistant who coaches the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

Whoever gets the job is going to face overwhelming pressure to produce another gold medal.

That has led to speculation Church’s ability, or inability, to deal with such strain may have created a lack of confidence in his coaching.

Earlier this year, Church’s father died of cancer. He spoke openly about how dealing with that loss was “a real big struggle. … Difficult times like the past few days are when I miss my dad most. I can’t speak with him any more.”

It has also been suggested that while Church worked well with the younger players he had previously coached with on the national under-18 and U22 teams, his messages weren’t resonating the same way with the veterans. Church had handled the national women’s team at the last two world championships, winning a gold and silver, and believed he had “good relationships with the vast majority of the team.”

That said, the 40-year-old never got to say goodbye to the team, another telling yet curious aspect of his resignation. He said he would have liked the opportunity but it was “a mutual agreement between myself and Hockey Canada how they were going to roll things out.”

Had he been able to bid his farewell, he would have told the players how much he appreciated their efforts and that his heart is still with them as they ready for the Sochi Olympics.

“It’s like being at base camp [for] your Everest summit and you’re not going to summit Mount Everest,” he said of his emotions. “I’m disappointed and crushed personally, but I’m still a coach at heart and I’ll be back at it in a few months. … If there is ever an opportunity to represent Canada again at any level with any time, I would jump at it.”

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