The slim little fellow in the horn-rimmed glasses and the sharp cadet’s uniform didn’t recognize himself at first.
Perhaps it was appropriate the music playing over the montage of Hayley Wickenheiser’s many triumphs – her son, Noah, one of them – the speakers in the foyer of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block were blasting Phil Collins’s Against All Odds. (“… Take a look at me now …”)
Noah Pacina – “I’m 13 1/2” – was but a toddler when his mother won her first Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City. Moments after the medal was around her neck, Noah was, as well, mother and son celebrating on the ice while photographers captured the historic moment: Canada’s first gold medal in women’s hockey.
“I was kind of surprised,” the now teenage Noah said. “I don’t remember that. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s me!’”
Since that first great victory in Salt Lake City in 2002, there have two more gold medals – Turin in 2006, Vancouver in 2010 – and it is almost certain that the Canadian women, with Wickenheiser still in the lineup at 35, will play for gold in Sochi next month.
Take a look at me now, indeed. The film montage captured 20 years of Wickenheiser being on the national team. It showed her four medal victories – three golds, joined by a silver in Nagano in 1998, when women’s hockey became an Olympic sport – and her five Olympics, given that she also represented Canada in softball at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games.
In a couple of weeks, that montage will have a significant addition, when Hayley Wickenheiser carries the flag to lead the Canadian athletes into the Olympic stadium in Russia.
“A very crazy couple of days,” a delighted Wickenheiser said by remote from Austria, where she is practising with Team Canada.
“This is an incredible honour and one that means so much to me after having represented Canada in hockey for so many years,” she added in a prepared statement.
“Today, I have been chosen as Canada’s flag-bearer, but today is about carrying the hopes and dreams of nearly 35 million Canadians to Sochi.”
“I can’t wait to lead an amazing group of athletes who have dedicated their lives to achieving their Olympic dreams for both themselves and Canada,” Wickenheiser said.
Later, in a telephone conference call, Wickenheiser was asked about everything from security in Sochi for family, as well as the athletes (“I feel quite confident that they’re going to be well protected”), to the possibility of her retirement following her sixth Games (“I get that almost daily – and I honestly don’t have an answer”).
She talked about her hometown of Shaunavon, Sask., (“You can come from the middle of nowhere and still have a chance to do something”) and of the significance of women’s hockey being added to the Winter Games 16 years ago (“The world only pays attention to women’s hockey for two weeks every four years. … The Olympics is our Stanley Cup”).
She was asked about the state of the women’s team, given it had a head coaching change last December, as well as a small shift in the leadership just this past week, with Carolyn Ouellette taking over the captaincy and Wickenheiser now serving as assistant.
New coach Kevin Dineen, she said, “has really rallied our group.”
While she was disappointed to lose the C, she still believes the team is in “a good place heading in” to the February tournament.
Not surprisingly, the curse of the flag-bearer came up: The notion that he or she who carries the flag is doomed dates from Kurt Browning, world champion figure skater, failing to win a medal in Lillehammer in 1994. While some have slipped, others have decidedly not (Catriona Le May Doan won gold in long-track speed skating in 2002).
“I don’t believe in the curse of the flag-bearer,” Wickenheiser said. All the pressure in hockey, she added, has nothing to do with the opening ceremony. “Whether you’re male or female, the country expects a gold medal.”
While Wickenheiser could not be present Thursday, family and friends from Calgary were flown in for the announcement.
Canadian Olympic team chef de mission Steve Podborski later talked about how merely going to the Olympics is what matters to most of the athletes.
“I remember the opening ceremonies,” Podborski said, “and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m an Olympian. This is the best Canada can offer. I’m with all the best from around the planet.’
“Winning a medal is kind of a bonus, but not the biggest thing.”
Podborski was accompanied Thursday by assistant chefs Jean-Luc Brassard and France St-Louis, both former Olympians. St-Louis was Wickenheiser’s teammate in Nagano, and on several world championship-winning teams.
“Hayley came on the team when she was 15,” St-Louis remembered. “We have 20 years difference in age, so at the end of my career, they were always saying, ‘Hayley could be your daughter.’ I’d say: ‘I know that. Don’t remind me of that.’
“I’ve known her for so long, you know, and she’s a great, great, great hockey player – but not just a great hockey player. She does a lot for her community. She’s involved everywhere. She’s a great role model for all the young kids across Canada.”
And none more so than 13 1/2 year-old Noah Pacina, who stood at attention throughout the long announcement and was later asked what he intended to do once he himself got to Sochi.
“I might make a sign saying, ‘Go Mom!’
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