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Sports Jayna Hefford looks to future of women’s hockey as she takes place in Hall of Fame

Jayna Hefford poses with her Hall of Fame plaque following a news conference at the Great Hall in the Hockey Hall Of Fame, in Toronto, on Nov. 9, 2018.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It’s been more than 16 years since Jayna Hefford scored that momentous goal in Salt Lake City, the eventual game-winner that secured Canada’s first Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey.

It was one of 157 goals she would score in an illustrious career with Team Canada. Yet this week, sitting in her commissioner’s seat in the Toronto offices of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), Hefford could vividly recall every detail of that goal. Maybe it’s because people still often ask her about that moment, when she caught the puck out of the air mid-stride, outgunned one of the best U.S. defenders in history, beat the expiring clock and sparked confidence not only in her team, but in her country watching back home.

That memorable Olympic goal will no doubt be part of the highlight reel that looks back on Hefford’s decorated career when she is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. A pillar of the Canadian women’s national team for 17 seasons, the fleet-footed forward ranks No. 2 behind Hayley Wickenheiser in goals, games played (267), and points (291). She has seven gold medals from her 12 world championships and four from her five Olympic Games.

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Her career – one of the longest and most productive in women’s hockey history – also included a scoring title in the CWHL – the same six-team women’s pro league she recently took over as interim commissioner at the age of 41. One of the fastest, smartest, most elusive and well-known females to play the sport is now in a position to steer and expand it for women at the professional level.

Hefford grew up in Kingston as a solid player in soccer, softball, volleyball and basketball. But hockey was her favourite. Like many girls at that time, she played on boys’ hockey teams to start and moved over to girls’ hockey after a few seasons. Her older brother played, her parents helped out with their teams, and the family spent hours honing their skills on the Hefford backyard rink.

Hefford was a standout with the Kingston Kodiaks, and eventually with Team Ontario, too. As she was approaching university in the mid-nineties, she was just slightly before the trend that would later see many U.S colleges scout countless top Canadian female hockey players to take them south on NCAA scholarships.

“I certainly didn’t have people knocking down my door,” Hefford said.

She said she received limited interest from some Ivy League schools, but it still would have cost her family big money. Hefford was more interested in playing for the Canadian powerhouse at the time, the University of Toronto, which had players such as Lori Dupuis and Laura Schuler and coach Karen Hughes, who all had Team Canada experience.

Hefford was rookie of the year and the OWIAA’s top scorer with 23 goals and 11 assists in 12 games in 1996-97, her single season playing for U of T. The explosive young forward wound up on Team Canada for the 1997 world championships in Kitchener, where Canada won gold. The roster listed her at 5 foot 5 and 135 pounds, some 20 to 40 pounds lighter than many other teammates and opponents.

“She sat really low and deep in her stride, and she looked so unassuming, and then all of sudden she’d take off so efficiently, and she could just pull away from everybody,” said Shannon Miller, Canadian coach in 1997 and 1998. “She was in a league of her own in regards to skating back then, but then she also had great hands and great instincts and was very composed. When someone is that calm, that efficient and that smart, they’re not going to burn out quickly.”

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Team Canada's Jayna Hefford shows off her gold medal after defeating Team USA in the women's gold medal hockey game at the Sochi Winter Olympics, in Sochi, Russia, in a Feb. 21, 2014, file photo.

Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The young forward teammates had come to call “Heff” was a baby-faced 19-year-old on Canada’s first Olympic women’s hockey team for the 1998 Nagano Games. She was coachable and always smiling, but also quiet. It was all new as the women got to train full time leading into those Olympics, centralizing in a six-month camp in Calgary as a documentary crew followed to film players battling for spots on the historic team and preparing for their Olympic debut.

“For the first time we weren’t in school or working, and we were paid very minimally, but our focus every day was training, travelling and playing, and that had never happened for female hockey players before,” Hefford said. “Whether you were a young rookie like me or 40 years old like France Saint-Louis, it was brand new for everyone. Being on Canada’s first Olympic women’s hockey team was a total honour and what a learning experience.”

The Canadians watched heartbroken on the ice in Nagano as their foes from the United States were awarded the first set of Olympic women’s hockey gold medals. The Olympics would elevate their rivalry.

Canadian goalie Sami Jo Small says her favourite on-ice memory of Hefford was when Canada was trailing the United States 2-0 in the gold-medal game at the 2000 world championships in Mississauga.

“We were all pretty nervous between the second and third periods because we had never lost a world championship, ever at that point,” Small said. “I was the goaltender in the game, and Jayna scored two goals in the third to tie it up, and then we went on to win in overtime. Jayna could always create something when we needed her most.”

So two years later at the Salt Lake Olympics, it was no surprise that Hefford sped into open ice to create again, scoring that memorable goal that would put Canada up 3-1 on the United States to end the second period, and into promising position to avoid a second successive Olympic silver medal. Vicky Sunohara had won the faceoff and, a couple of quick passes later, Becky Kellar flipped it to the other blueline – through the air – to the lightning-quick Hefford.

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Hefford batted it down with her glove while in stride, then juked in as U.S. defender Angela Ruggiero chased after her. Hefford popped the puck over sprawling goalie Sara DeCosta and into the net, with a single second left on the clock. Canada hung on to win that gold-medal game 3-2.

“Mentally, Jayna was so tough and, while she was one of the smaller players in the game, she was incredibly strong and you couldn’t knock her of the puck. She had opponents shadowing her all the time, but she never let anybody get to her,” Sunohara said. “Jayna has always been so modest. Whenever that goal comes up, she says ‘yeah Vicky but you won the draw’. She gives everyone else the credit for it. Everyone knew, just throw the puck into space and Jayna will get there.”

After Canada repeated as Olympic champs at the 2006 Turin Olympics, several star players and veteran leaders retired, such as Sunohara and Cassie Campbell – some of her closest friends. Hefford would have to push out of her comfort zone as a quiet leader. She was encouraged – along with other long-timers such as Wickenheiser and Caroline Ouellette – to form a new leadership core.

“I had to really work at it, to go outside the box a little bit, to get to know the younger players better and build those relationships,” Hefford said. “Once I got to know them and build that trust, I saw that I could do good things as a leader, too.”

In the years leading up to the 2010 Olympics, Hefford started working with an individual skills coach, determined not only to retain her spot on the national team well into her 30s, but to keep being a big contributor.

She had her most productive Olympics in 2010, tallying five goals and seven assists in five games as Canada earned gold in Vancouver. She was an assistant captain there, and again when Canada took gold four years later in Sochi, her final Olympics.

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Hefford, Wickenheiser and Ouellette are among only five Olympians worldwide to win gold in four consecutive Winter Games, joining Soviet biathlete Alexander Tikhonov and German speed skater Claudia Pechstein.

Jayna Hefford scores Canada's third goal during the gold medal game against Team USA at the Nagano Winter Olympics, in a Feb. 21. 2002, file photo.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Hefford was a standout in club hockey, too, which she played since her second year of university. Over 14 seasons she was loyal to the Brampton Thunder – a team that began in the short-lived National Women’s Hockey League and which, after that league folded, joined the CWHL upon its founding in 2007.

Her best campaign came in 2008-09, when she had 44 goals and 25 assists over 28 games to win the CWHL scoring trophy, the Angela James Bowl. Hefford watched in admiration as Brampton Mayor Susan Fennell started up the Thunder and ran it like a business. She was a woman advocating for other women, preaching that female hockey stars deserved a professional place to play.

Now, three years after retiring from her playing career, Hefford is the one exploring ways to build the profile of the CWHL. She works to attract corporate sponsors and media attention for the league with teams in Brampton, Ont.; Toronto; Montreal; Calgary; Worcester, N.Y.; and Shenzhen, China.

She’s also tasked with the hottest item on the women’s hockey agenda: finding a way to merge the CWHL into a single league with the National Women’s Hockey League, a U.S. pro league started with 2015 with teams in Buffalo, Boston, Stamford, Newark, and Minneapolis. The CWHL is non-profit, and the NWHL is for-profit, so it won’t be easy. The NHL says it wants to get involved only once there is one women’s league.

“When I played, I certainly wanted there to be one league with the very best players in it, but navigating how that works is very challenging,” Hefford said. “In my mind, you’d have to eliminate some teams. You don’t want more than six teams at this point because you want to keep the quality as high as possible. We stay in contact about it, but in the meantime, I have to make the CWHL the best league possible and attract all the best players.”

She juggles this with a busy family life. Hefford has three young children with partner Kathleen Kauth, a former U.S. player who helped found the CWHL, and played against Hefford in Olympic and world title competitions and with her on the Thunder.

Hefford has a busy weekend of events at the Hall of Fame before she’s inducted Monday along with the rest of the class: Russian great Alexander Yakushev, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and former NHL players Martin Brodeur, Martin St. Louis, and Willie O’Ree. The once-quiet forward turned leader has a few notes prepared for Monday night.

“I’ll have 16 people there with me – my partner, kids, family, and teammates,” Hefford said. “I’m hoping as opposed to a speech, it will be me talking from the heart.”

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