Hockey Moms Know Best

From left to right, top to bottom: Brianne Jenner and her mother Brenda; Genevieve Lacasse with her grandmother Francine and Saviolidis and mom Nathalie Saviolidis; Colleen Johnston with daughter Rebecca; Marilyn Wickenheiser with daughter Hayley; Gillian Apps with mom Anne Apps; Nicole and daughter Caroline Ouellette

Olympic athletes get fuelled for the Sochi Games
Photography Tobin Grimshaw

I don’t know about you, but I’ve rarely spent much time in the company of a team of superlative international-level athletes. Canada has few higher achievers than our National Women’s Hockey Team, so last October, my curiosity piqued, I attended a team dinner in Laval, Que., hosted by Procter & Gamble. Its Thank You, Mom campaign salutes the women – including hockey moms – who help their children become Olympians. The addition of journalists on the eve of the second in a six-game series with their American archrivals was a ruse to hide the fact that the team was about to have a morale-boosting visit from important fans who would serve the meal – their mothers.

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Cher Agosta with her daugher Meghan who scored twice and assisted on Hayley Wickenheiser’s goal to lead Canada to a 3-2 victory over the United States.

Waiting in a small room off their hotel’s lobby, about a dozen and a half moms – and a couple of grandmères – excitedly laughed and chatted as they donned aprons provided by P&G’s Bounty paper towels, proud sponsor of Hockey Moms, to quote the company’s promotional speak. The moms planned to sneak down the hall and rush the dining room to surprise the 27 players. The team bus, however, was delayed, amping up the suspense. Perhaps inevitably after a long practice that had ended with a no-notice visit from anti-doping testers, a couple of the players couldn’t produce the requisite urine sample on demand.

Finally, the moms stifled their laughter when they’re told, “Shh! The bus is here.” In the dining room, tired and hungry players found seats, smiling politely at the cameras and writers looking on from the sidelines. A scuffling of feet and cries of “Surprise!” instantly energized the room as their excited mothers dashed in.
Anne Apps, of Markham, Ont., like many of the mothers, hadn’t seen her daughter since the team had centralized in Alberta last August. Gillian Apps, a forward, has gold medals from the last two Winter Olympics (Turin, Italy in 2006 and Vancouver in 2010) and a hockey pedigree – grandfather Syl Apps is a Hockey Hall of Fame inductee and her father, Syl Apps Jr., played 10 years in the NHL.

Prospective members for the men’s Olympic hockey team had also met for a training camp in Calgary in August. Pricey insurance for Hockey Canada prevented them from actually skating, so they practised – ball hockey. These National Hockey League players played in their regular season before the final team roster was announced in early January 2014.
Hugs over, the women introduced their moms to their teammates. They were nearing the end of a tough schedule that includes nearly 50 games before the Winter Olympics hockey in Sochi (Feb. 8 to 20), playing the American team, other international women’s teams and more than 30 games opposite Alberta Midget Hockey League teams. The boys, aged 15 to 17 – midget in name only – provide challenging competition.

As I watch the interaction in the room, I feel this schedule has helped these women coalesce into a 27-woman unified force. Even in an informal setting like this they seem to have a sixth sense, an awareness of one another’s position. But it’s the level of confidence that impresses most. I’ve never met so many young women who appear so comfortable in their own skins. Elite hockey, it appears, is a college for confidence and leadership.

Nathalie Saviolidis, mother of goalie Geneviève Lacasse, told me it was hard to let her then 16-year-old daughter go to Chicago to play hockey and attend high school. But she and her ex-husband felt Lacasse had to make her own decisions. “It was going to be her choices, her doing, so that she could always stand up and be proud of herself,” she said. Searching for the best combination of education and hockey programs, Lacasse changed high schools six times in as many years. “She is one determined young lady,” Saviolidis said. “Never did she complain or stop training or believing in her dream.”

By Dec. 23, six players would be gone from the team, a heartbreaking shrinkage required by a 21-player limit for the Olympic Games tournament. The team, announced just before Christmas, includes nine Olympic rookies and 12 who played in Vancouver in 2010. Forwards Jayna Hefford and Hayley Wickenheiser have been on four Winter Olympic teams since 1998, when women’s ice hockey was introduced. They won a silver (in 1998) and three golds (in 2002, 2006 and 2010). Wickenheiser also played softball in the Summer Olympics in 2000.
Canadian hockey teams can’t rest on their considerable laurels – other national teams threaten their supremacy. At the dinner, P&G announced a four-year partnership with Hockey Canada to spur growth from entry-level to international status and sponsor championships and other high-level building blocks for male and female youth and sledge hockey (athletes with lower-body disabilites play from special sleds). Canadian and American teams will be the ones to beat in Sochi, but there’s a danger in that as well. Unless other women’s teams improve and provide serious competition, women’s hockey may vanish from the Olympics. Hockey-playing girls – and their moms – would be heartbroken about that.