CALGARY – Jennifer Botterill retired almost a year ago after one of the most successful careers in women’s hockey. The now 31-year-old made her debut for Canada at the 1998 Olympics and went on to win three Olympic gold medals and one silver, as well as an astounding five golds and three silver medals at the Women’s World Championship.
“I loved my experience playing,” she explained. “I felt so fortunate, but I got to a point where I was looking forward to new challenges as well. I loved my playing career, but it was just time for a new chapter.”
An integral part of that new chapter will be written in the upcoming days as she travels to Austria for the first Youth Olympic Games, winter edition. The inaugural summer tournament took place two years ago in Singapore and was a roaring success. The winter version will take place in Innsbruck, Austria, from January 13 to 22.
“I’m an Athlete Role Model,” Botterill explained of her role at the YOG. “I get the chance to go to Austria and be involved in the Games and interact with the athletes. I’m there for four days for a variety of events, speaking to athletes. The main goal is just to be there and be a resource for the athletes from all countries, not just Canada. It’s a chance for me to share some of my experiences. Hopefully I can provide a bit of insight so they can perform to their best. It’s going to be exciting.”
Like many Olympic roles, hers was the result of a nomination process. “I was selected by the International Olympic Committee, but the International Ice Hockey Federation and the Canadian Olympic Committee and Hockey Canada all submitted my name, so I was very grateful for everyone who supported me and recommended me for the role. I’m hugely honoured.”
The Youth Olympic Games is expressly designed for athletes between 14 and 18 years of age. It’s intended, of course, to help athletes prepare for the senior Olympics where pressure, performance, and expectation are often overwhelming.
“The event is still young, but the first one in the summer in Singapore two years ago was a huge success, so they’re just starting to build on that,” Botterill noted. “The concept is so valuable for young athletes to get this kind of experience. It will be a huge step in their careers. We had nothing like this when I started playing.”
In the case of Boterrill, her role is also a huge step in her post-playing career as she looks to establish herself in business clothes, not skates, gloves, and team sweater. She was one of several Canadian and American players to act as ambassadors to European and Asian nations and players since the Vancouver Olympics in the IIHF Ambassador and Mentor Program, all part of a long process to allow the rest of the world to catch up to the North Americans who have been so dominant in women’s hockey since it became an IIHF event in 1990.
“I’m going to continue to be an ambassador for the IIHF in other countries in women’s hockey,” Botterill confirmed. “My interaction with the IOC has also been great, so I hope there will be events down the road when I can do something else with them.”
One of those ambassadors – and both a friend and adversary – has been Angela Ruggiero, who announced her retirement only a couple of weeks ago. While both players were on opposite sides of the ice during many of the most bitter games between Canada and the United States, few fans realize the players are closer than what one might think.
“We were roommates our sophomore year at Harvard University,” Botterill said. “We still stay in touch. I’m so happy for her. She’s been a great ambassador for women’s hockey, and it was an honour to play with her at Harvard. It was a great experience. She’s another person who’s going to stay so involved in the sport and give back in different ways.”
Having these two titans of the game join hands in the determined efforts to improve the women’s game in any and every way will be an important part of the game’s future as it strives to close that gap, develop talent in a league-based environment, and increase the popularity of the game among fans outside the five rings of Olympic glory.
“There are a lot of bright girls with great educations who play women’s hockey,” Botterill said. “They play for the right reasons. There are no pro contracts like in men’s hockey. The people are great; the teams are great; there’s great camaraderie. I think people are eager to see the game improve, and it’s amazing to see how far it’s come in just 20 years.”
For Botterill, though, her playing days are irrevocably gone. “I played in the CWHL last year, but decided that was it. I took a break after Vancouver and decided to play for Toronto in the league, but by the end of the year, I knew I was ready to leave. I knew it was time. All of the new projects I’ve been involved in have been great and really refreshing for me.”
The last year has been hectic and all-consuming for her even though it was an adjustment doing something without teammates and games as the focus. “I’ve been doing a lot of travelling for speaking events, motivational and pursuing excellence. I‘ve always been a believer in positive psychology. I’ve also been doing some features for television networks like Hockey Night in Canada, doing some clinics, a little work for TSN and the women’s championships, then the work with the IIHF and IOC. Everything combined has kept me pretty busy.”
Picking a career highlight from among the plethora of successes Botterill has enjoyed and contributed to might normally be difficult, but in her case one stands tall among all others.
“Winning in Vancouver,” she said without hesitation. “The whole journey was amazing. The whole country shared it. To see some of the pictures and the footage from the gold-medal game is still a bit surreal. To this day I still get people telling me they remember the game or where they watched it. That’s such an important part of sharing the experience.”
One of the biggest problems in women’s hockey, though, is understanding how some ten million Canadians can watch that final game in Vancouver on television but only handfuls of those same fans come to local arenas to watch many of the same players in CWHL games.
“That’s a challenge right now,” she admitted. “I think awareness is a huge part of it. People who come out to watch the CWHL games love it. You have nine or ten Olympic players in many of the games. It’s pretty impressive. The game is still young. Once you graduate from school, it’s the only place to play. I’m not sure I have all the answers, but we have to work to get the game more exposure.”