They’d been up all night celebrating their gold medal, but rather than go to bed to catch a quick nap, Hayley Wickenheiser and her Canadian women’s Olympic hockey teammate Shannon Szabados did what a couple of hockey-crazed lifers would do – and went to watch the Canadian men’s team practice at Friday’s morning skate.
Their appearance caused something of a sensation, given how the night before, they’d staged the most improbable comeback in the history of women’s hockey, overcoming a two-goal lead in the final four minutes of regulation and then pulling out a 3-2 overtime win over their archrivals, the United States, Marie-Philip Poulin scoring the tying and winning goals.
It was the fourth consecutive gold medal for Wickenheiser, the second for Szabados and Poulin and they are, to some extent, hockey lifers – never happier than when they are at the rink. Which is why, watching a practice after one of the biggest moments of their respective lives just seemed like the natural thing to do.
“I just love watching hockey,” said Wickenheiser, at a mid-afternoon press conference with five of her teammates. “I love watching those games. I mean, you’re at the Olympic Games and you’re watching the best players in the world. I feel like there’s always something you can learn and pick up.”
That Wickenheiser, at the age of 35, still wants to improve says something about the commitment necessary to play the game at a time where many of her peers have retired and moved on with their lives. Wickenheiser isn’t there yet – she plans to take a break once these Olympics are over and think hard about her future.
She wants to go to medical school at some point, and if she decides to do that sooner than later she may need to step away from women’s hockey at this level. But she hasn’t completely ruled out playing again in 2018 when the Olympics go to South Korea, although it will depend upon who is coaching and the direction they might try to take the team.
“I talked to Teemu (Selanne) quite a bit,” said Wickenheiser. “He’s 43 and he tells me to keep playing, so … I love to play. I just need to take a break and see where life takes me. I’d like to get into medical school as well. If I go to medical school, it might end up making a difference. We’ll see who ends up being the coach and where the program’s going to go and what the plans are for the next four years. That will be a big factor too.”
Like a lot of her teammates, Wickenheiser described this gold medal as the hardest of the four she’d won, a storybook finish to an up-and-down season. Both she and Poulin were out with injuries until just after Christmas. Poulin told reporters in French that she considered giving up her spot to another teammate because of the persistence of her ankle injury.
“I feel like the game reflected our year this year - being down two goals,” said Poulin “It was not easy this year, with injuries, with the coaching change and everything, but I think it just shows that we kept our composure and kept working together towards the same goal – and it happened.”
Canada won the first three games against the Americans in their preseason schedule and then lost the next four. Just before Christmas, they switched coaches, from Dan Church to Kevin Dineen, and amid reports the team was unsure about player selection – and if they wanted to go with a younger squad, or one that had a mix of young and experience.
It took them time to adjust to Dineen’s methods and tactics and Dineen time to get to know the players. For Dineen’s first practice, the players wore name tags on the front of their helmets, like a kid’s team. After that, they left him on their own. They won the preliminary round by defeating the Americans in come-from-behind fashion - and they did it again with the gold-medal on the line.
“This one was the hardest one to get in so many different ways,” said Wickenheiser. “It feels really good, very satisfying. The way that we did it, to come from behind two goals down, was a special win.”
The difference was so slim. The U.S.’s Kelli Stack had a shot at the empty net and the puck hit the post and stayed out. Once inch more to one side and the game ends right there.
"That's how you just know that it wasn't our night,” said Stack. “The puck literally just missed going in by an inch. So we just have to tell ourselves that everything happens for a reason and if we were meant to win gold medals, that puck would have went in the back of the net."
Going into overtime, Wickenheiser said: “It wasn’t nerve-wracking. We were in a very pressure-filled game, but we were very calm in the room. We knew we had to keep it composed. We felt we had the fitness and the ability to just take it to them. That’s what we’d been training for all year long. We talked around riding Apex Mountain in B.C. We did that in a boot camp with our team and we said, ‘this is our Apex Mountain and we’re going up and that’s going to be the difference.’ That’s why you do all the training – that when you get to those moments, there’s maybe those two inches that you can bump the puck and makes the difference.”
Szabados helped Canada stay alive with big saves early in the overtime period, setting the stage for Poulin’s heroics.
“Someone sent me a video link of all the Canadians all over the world celebrating all over the world,” said Szabados. “It’s an exciting thing to be part of.”
But she was on the bench, watching as Stack’s shot headed towards the goal before Poulin’s goal late in regulation kept the Canadian team alive.
“That was definitely going through my mind – not letting another one in,” said Szabados. “We’ve played something like 55 to 60 games this year. We’ve been down 2-0, 4-0, we’ve been up 4-0, we’ve been through every situation. The girls remained calm. Kevin on the bench and in between periods really helped us out. You could see the confidence and the poise and the momentum slowly swinging our way.”
In the meantime, Wickenheiser was also appointed to the International Olympic Committee’s athlete’s council this week, which will keep her involved in Olympic sport for the foreseeable future. Wickenheiser is a six-time Olympian, having competed for Canada in 2000 in the Summer Games in Sydney as a softball player.
Beyond picking up a tip or two, Wickenheiser said: “Just to go and say, ‘we’re here to support you too’ is important. A couple of guys came by and tapped on the glass and waved. Mike (coach Babcock) came over and gave us a hug. That was nice. We’re also part of a big team and I just love to be around the rink.”
It was 3 p.m. by then and Wickenheiser was one of six players who’d come over to the Main Press Centre to speak about the win. She hadn’t slept yet.
“You know what? I feel great. I’m probably going to hit the wall tonight at the men’s game, but it has been great. I’m just trying to take in every minute. We have three more days here and it’s going to be a hard crash when we get home, because life goes back to normal pretty quickly.”
Wickenheiser has been around long enough to know that despite two wins over the Americans at this tournament, the games could have gone either way.
“Maybe it’s the lucky loonie,” said Wickenheiser. “I’m not sure.”
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