Experienced Canadian forward Jayna Hefford looks back at one of the greatest contests of her career - and offers to play it all again tomorrow.
With five Olympic campaigns under her belt, Canada’s Jayna Hefford knows better than most how women’s hockey has developed. Just don’t call her a veteran.
The 36-year-old forward now has, like her teammate Hayley Wickenheiser, four gold medals from her adventures in Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver and now Sochi, and couldn’t resist a gentle poke at those who had criticised the Canadian roster for relying on too many older players.
“After reading all those comments about how old our team was I liked our experience on the night,” she said after Canada’s thrilling 3-2 overtime victory in the gold medal game. “I liked our leadership. You can’t underestimate that on any team.”
It was that kind of leadership which clawed back a 2-0 deficit in the last minutes of a game which Hefford rates as one of the best she’s ever played in. And, while the left-shooting Brampton Thunder forward has yet to confirm her plans for the future, she admitted it would be a fitting footnote to her international career.
“This game ranks pretty high on my list for a gold medal game,” she said. “Even before we won the game I think it was a great game for women’s hockey. It was back and forth, fast, skilled and to come out on top makes it even better.”
Not that anyone should assume that this is an epitaph – as Hefford added that while basking in the glow of this victory she’d be happy to go out and play it all again tomorrow. That’s how memorable it was, and potentially how important it was for the growth of the sport.
“I hope it’s going to be talked about for the result,” she said. “Not just because we won but because of the game that it was. I thought about my friends and family at home watching the game, and the girls’ parents in the stands. It must have been an amazing and terrifying thing to watch. That’s great for women’s hockey.”
It also came at the end of a more challenging campaign than ever. While the US-Canada rivalry continues to dominate the sport – neither side has failed to medal at an Olympic, and only Sweden in 2006 has managed to muscle in to the final – that pre-eminence has been maintained with a new level of professionalism and intensity.
“It gets harder every time. This was the toughest season for us,” Hefford said. “It’s been gruelling physically and mentally. There were challenges with our coaching situation and I will say that Dan Church did a fantastic job with this group while he was here then Kevin Dineen did a fabulous job when he came in. It’s been a tough season and I think to see the character shown in the end, when you believe in a plan like that it’s pretty rewarding.
“We told each other that we had trained too hard to not be prepared for it. In those tough work-outs you don’t know why you’re doing it, but we know now why they were pushing us so hard and why we lost a lot of games this season. None of them mattered, it was all about the gold medal.”
That gold medal was secured by two goals from Marie-Philip Poulin, a line-mate of Hefford’s. Known as one of the quieter figures on the team, she reprised her Vancouver knack of delivering when it matters most – and left Hefford anticipating great things for her in the future.
“She’s incredibly skilled and passionate, she loves the game and just has that sense about her. The puck finds her and she buries it,” said Hefford. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for how good she is. I think she showed the world tonight that’s she’s the best player in the world.”
It was that quality which changed that game: “I think we expect to generate some offence but we didn't have too many changes early in the game. But when you have her on your team you know she's going to come through in the big moments. It was just a matter of us being positive, sticking with the game plan and taking our chances when they came.”
That’s why, if and when Hefford finally hangs up her skates and puts away the national team jersey, she’s confident that there’s a bright future with the likes of Poulin to lead the team.
“She is the best player in the world but she’s also a great leader, a great person and a great teammate. She's going to be around for a long time and she's going to be the captain of this team in the future for sure. I can't say enough about her.”