SHEFFIELD – The 2013 IIHF Women’s High Performance Camp officially kicked off as a star-studded group of Olympians shared their experiences with the girls in a panel called Path of a Champion.
The panel included four female hockey stars: Isabelle Chartrand (CAN), Carla Macleod (CAN), Tehri Mertanen (FIN), and Zuzanna Tomcikova (SVK). Speaking to an eager audience with their own dreams of making the Olympics, each player spoke about the challenges associated with women’s ice hockey, as well as the ups and downs they’ve had to face in their own careers.
The first panellist to speak was former Team Canada defenceman Isabelle Chartrand. Chartrand won World Championship gold in 2001 then at age 22 went to play at the 2002 Winter Olympics as one of the youngest members of that gold medal-winning team.
“When I started playing hockey I was seven years old,” said Chartrand. “I had to play with boys because there were no women’s hockey teams at that time. My dad didn’t want me to play at first because he was afraid I’d get hurt, but my mom said ‘Let her play she won’t like it.’ I’ve been playing for 28 years now (laughs).”
The panel was very well received thanks in large part to the athletes' backgrounds and willingness to share their knowledge with the campers. In most countries, maintaining a career in women’s hockey can be very challenging, especially as players grow older and the opportunities to compete begin to dwindle. But the panellists' own experiences also gave a glimpse into the opportunities that exist not only to play hockey but also to build a career that the girls could treasure for a lifetime.
“There’s gonna be cool moments, there’s gonna be fun times, but there will also be challenges,” said former Canadian women’s national team coach and panel moderator Mel Davidson. “There’ll be times when you are unhappy or you want to quit or you won’t know why you’re doing it, these women have experienced that as well and that’s why they are here to share their experiences with you.”
Goaltender Zuzanna Tomcikova spoke about trying to extend her hockey career after not being permitted to play in boy’s leagues in Slovakia when she reached 16 years of age. After spending two years playing in Canada, she began playing with the national team and went to her first World Championship at 18 years old.
Travelling to North Korea for the 2007 Division II tournament, she posted a 0.60 GAA and three shutouts in five games to help her country win promotion. Her success at the international level continued up to the top division, where in 2011 she won the Most Valuable Player Award at the Worlds in Burlington, and prior to that competed at the Olympics in Vancouver.
“Qualifying for the Olympics was my biggest career highlight, not the Olympics themselves, because we were the underdog and we were not supposed to be there,” said Tomcikova.
“We went through two rounds of qualifications, then we had to play Germany who were ranked eighth while we were ranked 17th. But we played our hearts out and managed to win 2-0, and the second game against Kazakhstan who were ranked ninth and we won 1-0 and got our ticket to Vancouver. It was an unbelievable feeling and a dream come true.”
Despite her successes, she shared with the campers a moment where she wasn’t sure what her next step would be and wondered if her career would be in jeopardy.
“I played in Sweden for a year with another goalie who plays on the Swedish national team,” she said. “After a year I was talking to the staff and they decided that they didn’t want two goalies at the same level, and because she was Swedish and she was going to the Olympics they wanted to keep her.”
“So after a year I ended up with no team and didn’t know what was going to happen next. I was at a point where I was thinking about quitting because I was so disappointed that they let me go, but fortunately it worked out because I got offered a scholarship to the U.S. at the last minute. That was the biggest challenge of my career, I was let down and it was hard to be told that they didn’t want me to play, it was the hardest thing I went through but looking back now it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Tehri Mertanen was up next. The Finnish forward won a bronze medal at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and also played for ZSC Lions Zurich in the Leistungsklasse A (Switzerland national Women's league), winning the national championship in 2010-11 and 2011-12. In total, she played in five World Championships, winning bronze in 2011 and 2004.
“I started playing when I was 13, quite old actually (laughs),” she said. “Winning something great is always cool, but looking back at it, my whole career just playing and making friends was such a great experience.”
“I’ve been three times in the Olympics, we came fourth in Salt Lake and Torino, and we were able to come in third in Vancouver,” said Mertanen. “After the Olympics I heard that there had been over one million people watching the game on TV in my country. Women’s hockey is not that big yet in Finland, it’s growing but it’s not as big as in Canada or USA, so it was great to hear that.”
Carla MacLeod followed up Mertainen, speaking about her battles with injuries while at university the same year she had her first tryout with Team Canada.
“Just remember, you’ll heal and you’ll get back to work,” said MacLeod, who went on to play in four Worlds, winning one gold and three silvers to go with two golds in two Olympic Games.
“Vancouver was my last competitive hockey game, I retired after playing in the gold medal game, needless to say it was pretty exciting to be a Canadian and to win on home soil.”
MacLeod has since moved on to coaching. She splits her time between Mount Royal University in Canada and Japan, where she is head coach of Japan’s women’s national team, which earlier this year qualified for the Olympics for the first time ever.
The girls got a surprise with a late addition to the panel: British skeleton world champion Shelly Rudman, who is currently living and training in Sheffield and agreed to stop by and speak. Rudman began in athletics competing in hurdles but moved to bobsled in university and has competed for ten years, finishing second in Torino but dropping to sixth in Vancouver.
While the Vancouver finish was a setback, she spoke about her efforts to refocus and how she was able to get back and claim the No. 1 ranking this year with another possible shot at gold in Sochi.
“I still one more goal to go, though I’m happy with what I achieved so far,” said Rudman. “The Vancouver Olympics were a really big disappointment for me, I went in as the world No. 2 and I just couldn’t get along with the track and finished sixth, I finished that Olympics and didn’t feel complete, so I then spent about two months assessing everything and getting a good support team back together again and worked out a plan of action with my coaches.”
“We targeted some smaller Cups and the overall World Cup to try and pick myself back up again. And this year I managed to come back out and fulfil all those goals, so my motto is basically however bad it feels, you’re going to go through these stages and it’s the ones that continue and pull through that will succeed.”
Rudman was impressed with the large attendance numbers at the camp, and pleased to see that so many girls are interested in hockey and have come together from so many different countries to learn and improve their game.
“I find that this point in a female’s life, right around when they’re finishing school or they’re just on the cusp of their international careers is when you get the highest dropout rate, so it’s a really crucial point to keep them involved in their sport,” she said.
Near the end of the panel, Davidson asked the women to share some of their most memorable experiences. MacLeod drew a big round of applause when she spoke about a game between herself and Tomcikova that, while not remembered for the result, made a poignant observation about the sport and the sense of family within hockey.
“For me it was during the Vancouver Olympics, it was after our first game and we’d just played Slovakia. The game was one-sided: Canada won 18-0. But after we shook hands and Slovakia went to the middle of the ice to salute the 18,000 Canadian fans. And in that moment all the fans stood up and gave them a standing ovation, and for me I was standing at our bench and just to see that and to see how hockey unites us is something I’ll never forget.”