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Don't ask Sami Jo Small about life as a former gold-medal Olympic hockey player. It still hurts.

So much, in fact, that she won't be cheering Team Canada from the stands in the UBC Thunderbird Arena in Vancouver next February.

"It's too hard. I mean it's hard enough when commercials come on and you see the Olympic logo. Being there would be difficult."

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The 33-year-old goalie still plays competitive hockey alongside many of the stars who will lace up skates for Canada - Caroline Oullette, Jennifer Botterill, Jayna Hefford. And being the co-founder and driving force behind the Canadian Women's Hockey League has challenges of its own. Small also still makes a living from her Team Canada experiences, as a motivational speaker and owner of hockey camps for girls.

Women's hockey will be one of the glamour sports in Vancouver. And with six months to go from the opening ceremonies of a home-grown Olympics, it's probably the hardest time for Small not to be part of the team.

"I so desperately want to be there," she says.

"I'm now a year out from being officially cut from the team and I now feel like I can cheer on my friends. I really get genuinely excited for my friends to do well."

Small's story is, in many ways, the story of an Olympic dream as thwarted as it was triumphant. Team sports can be cruel that way. Athletes push themselves, train, endure and every once in a while, at the precipice of success, are asked to sacrifice personal ambition for the sake of the team.

She joined Team Canada as a 21-year-old a month after the roster was chosen for the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan - the first for women's hockey. Small had never played with women before.

Growing up in Winnipeg, she played with her brother and his friends, all the way up to boys midget AAA. While on a track scholarship at Stanford, Small played in "a glorified men's rec league," practising at 11 o'clock at night and facing teams such as UCLA and USC.

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She was cut from the '98 team, then invited back as a third-string goalie, which meant she'd practise, but not see any game time.

By 2002, Small had established herself as a first-rate netminder for Team Canada, regularly sharing goaltending duties with Kim St.-Pierre. The Salt Lake City Games were her first shot at Olympic gold and going into the final game against the United States - Canada's only real competition and the gold-medal winners in Nagano - Small was confident.

"I felt like they were beatable."

But she didn't get the start. Coach Danielle Sauvageau opted to go with St.-Pierre.

"That was the hardest thing as an athlete that I've ever had to go through," she says. "Who knew I was training 24 years to be the best cheerleader I could possibly be?"

The cruellest cut came before the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy. "I trained as hard as I possibly could for those three years between," Small says.

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Just as the team was about to leave, the coaches offered her the third-string spot. Unlike the men's game, alternate goalies in women's hockey don't receive medals.

"I was devastated," she says. "I didn't know if I could go through the whole process again and just have the strength of character to be there for my teammates and know at that at the end of the day, I might not get anything for my efforts."

A visit from her teammates tipped the scales. "They sat me down and said 'we wanted to let you know that we need you to win this gold medal.' Whether they did or didn't, the fact that they had the wherewithal to reach out to me in my time of need made me want to help them achieve their dreams."

Sitting on the bench while her teammates celebrated another gold medal, Small tried to think about what lesson she could take from the experience. She came up empty.

"It probably took six or eight months to realize that in the end, it's not about the medal at all. It's about being proud of what you put in each and every day," she says. "It's about helping those around you to achieve their goals."

Small played two more international tournaments for Team Canada - as a third-string goalie at the 2007 world championships in her hometown of Winnipeg, and then as a starter at the Four Nations Cup later that year.

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In the meantime, the owners of the National Women's Hockey League, a nascent semi-professional league where many postcollegiate players trained, announced they were folding. Small and some of her Team Canada compatriots decided to create a league of their own.

"I don't think we really knew what we were getting ourselves into, we just wanted to play," she says.

Small soon found herself up to her elbows in business plans, fundraising, planning and organizing. "I jokingly called my home office 'CWHL Headquarters' for those first couple of years."

With ownership comes responsibility. All of a sudden, Small was sweating the details: booking ice time, paying refs, organizing a schedule and liaising with teams in six cities from Montreal to Burlington, Ont. No task was too mundane - even cutting sheets of tickets. As head of the sponsorship committee, she helped raise $1-million over two years.

Now in its third season, the league is running more smoothly and has hired an executive director. While players aren't paid to play, they don't pay to play either, which is a boon for amateur athletes who eke out a living on government stipends and part-time jobs.

"This is where they hone their skills and where they play some of the best games they'll get to play," Small says. "Canada versus Japan doesn't compare to Mississauga versus Brampton. That's some of the best players in the world playing in Mississauga versus Brampton."

Not that it hasn't had its challenges - Hockey Canada pulled its support for the national women's championships, which featured top teams from the CWHL and its Western counterpart, the Western Women's Hockey League. So Small and her group of player-owners inaugurated the Clarkson Cup in March, featuring the same teams playing for "the women's Stanley Cup," donated by former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson.

The dream of taking the CWHL professional looms large for Small, who was finally cut from the women's national hockey program last September. She dismisses arguments that it'll never take off because the quality isn't NHL-calibre.

"We have a unique game that has a unique marketability in that the emphasis is put on skill instead of on strength," she says. "It's different than men's hockey."

In the meantime, she runs hockey schools in four provinces and earns a living as a motivational speaker. "It's one of the few things I've found that can really replace hockey. I really enjoy telling my story," she says.

Shortly after the closing ceremonies, Small will fly to Vancouver for the Paralympics to cheer on her fiancé, sledge hockey player Billy Bridges. The forward, who was born with spina bifida, will help Canada defend the Olympic gold medal it won in 2006. Small and Bridges plan to marry soon after.

"Some day maybe I'll get a real job," she says. "For now, I love what I do every day. Besides the fact that I still wish I played for Team Canada, I love my life."

*****

At the top

Sami Jo Small

Age 33

Born Winnipeg

Olympic record Gold medal, 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. Was an alternate for the gold-medal-winning 2006 team in Turin, Italy.

World Championships Five-time world champion (1999, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2007), two-time world championship MVP.

Team Canada stats 51 games played, 2,768 minutes, 48 goals against, 15 shutouts, 1.04 goals-against average, 0.946 save percentage, and a record of 40-6-0.

Where she is now Living in Mississauga; co-founder and player, Canadian Women's Hockey League (Mississauga Chiefs); operates hockey camps; motivational speaker.

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