BURLINGTON – Danielle Goyette accomplished everything she could hope to as a player. Now, five years into her new career as a coach, she is just as ambitious.
As a player, she represented Team Canada from 1992 to 2007, winning two Olympic gold and eight Women’s World Championship gold medals. She retired prior to the 2008 Worlds to focus on coaching, and she has been successfully building a team at the University of Calgary ever since. But hers is not a static personality, and she sees her job as far more important than just standing behind the bench changing lines.
“I moved to Calgary in 1996 to learn how to speak English because I played from 1991 to 1996 at the World Championship, and I couldn’t speak to my teammates,” she began. “I felt if I was going to play in the Olympics I’d have to learn the language. I planned on being there for five months, but I ended up staying there the rest of my career.”
After Canada won gold in 2007 with what was almost certainly the greatest women’s Team Canada ever assembled, Goyette was 41 years old and planning to play on. Not so fast.
“After the 2007 World Championships, I got a call from the Olympic Oval in Calgary,” she explained. “I met them, and they said they wanted me to be the coach of the Dinos, the university team. At that time, I had never coached a team. But the more I thought about it, I realized this kind of opportunity wouldn’t come along again soon if I wanted to play at the 2010 Olympics.”
Thinking she could both coach and play, she took the job and continued to train—or tried to. “By September,” she confessed, “I told [coach] Mel [Davidson] I couldn’t go to the camp. I needed more time to prepare and get into top shape. She said that was no problem. But by the January camp, I knew I couldn’t be good at both the way I had to be. I told Mel I wanted to stick with the coaching and make a go at it. That was five years ago.”
When she took over the Dinos, they weren’t even playing in CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport). “We started playing in a college league, not the university league. I told them my goal is to get the team into the CIS. I’m pretty focused when I want something, and I’ll do everything in my power to get it. I’ve been with Hockey Canada for so long that my expectations are very high. It took two years, but we got there, and three years later we won the national championship.”
The point Goyette makes is salient to her nature and to the future of the women’s game in Canada. She brought the highest level of expectations and performance to a job that could have been done lazily without anyone noticing. In short, she started to change the nature of coaching in CIS, the ambitions of CIS teams, and the level of play expected of CIS players.
“At the start, we had a team, but they were hockey players—they weren’t athletes,” she described. “They wanted to play hockey, but that was it. I changed things. I told them if we want to be better hockey players, we have to become athletes first. We trained on ice and off ice. We didn’t touch weights; we just did cardio, transition, quickness. In our first year, we lost the college finals, and in the second year we won.”
Goyette sees recruiting becoming an evermore important part of her job. The first player she brought to the Dinos made a pretty impressive splash—Hayley Wickenheiser.
“I was at the Olympics in 2010,” Goyette related. “After the semi-final game, I was in the lounge with friends and families, and I sat with Hayley. I talked to her about playing university hockey. She said, “What!?” She said she didn’t think she had enough patience for that. Anyway, she still had to play the gold-medal game, but I didn’t think I was putting any more pressure on her than she already had! In the summer I kept talking to her and explaining why it would be good for her and what effect she could have on the team. Then she came to camp and said she’d do it. I promised to work with her one-on-one to keep her skills at the highest, and now she’s just finished her second year.”
Goyette accomplished so much with that one move. First, she got the best female player in the country onto her team. Second, that player became an inspiration to her teammates, set the bar higher, led by example, became a mentor and assistant coach in many ways.
“As a coach, I can tell the players what to do, but when you have a role model who can show the players what to do, how to train, how to practice, see how hard she works, the other players learned a lot. She’s good for a reason. But Hayley had to change as well; she had to go back to school full time.”
There’s a third reason why the move might well be a turning point in women’s hockey history: Every other player with serious ambitions took notice that maybe Canadian university was an option over the NCAA.
“I don’t think the NCAA is always going to be the first choice,” Goyette said with a simplicity that belied the significance of that attitude. “For me, I feel like we have a job to do in Canada to make sure our level of hockey gets higher and higher. In my five years, I think the university game has gotten faster every year. The girls are stronger, more skilled. And the number of good teams across the country has also gone up and up. We can’t be afraid to ask players to play in Canada. A lot of the times, the parents might pressure their girls to go to the U.S., but for me, the player has to make the right choice. For instance, if you want to be a teacher, you have to go back to school when you come home to Canada because the degrees you get in the U.S. aren’t the same. Sometimes players don’t do enough research. Over the last couple of years, more players are staying in Canada, but if we want more to stay, we have to have the best hockey on the ice. And the scholarship money is getting better. It’s tough now to compete with a U.S. team that has a budget of $1.5 million. At the same time, players have to make sure they choose the right team, the right school. A lot of times, they go to the U.S. and then sit on the bench for the first two or three years.”
Goyette’s approach is pragmatic. Canada produces many world-class players, and she is always looking to improve her Canadian team. “My job is to develop the program in Calgary and make it one of the best in Canada. To do that, we have to win, and when we do, more players will want to come to your program because you have something to offer them.”
Another player Goyette recruited was Russian Iya Gavrilova, who made an impressive impact with the team. But don’t expect the Dinos to get too international any time soon.
“I would love to have more players like Iya on my team,” Goyette explained. “I mean, it was such a good experience for the other players as well to have her on the team. The problem is that when I bring a player from another country, it costs me three times more in scholarship money.”
Now that the Dinos are firmly ensconced in the CIS and doing well, Goyette is going to focus more on improving the team rather than just establishing a team.
“I started to really recruit last summer,” she admitted. “I had to develop the program first before I could. No doubt about it, I’m going to be more aggressive moving forward in recruiting.”
And how does the CIS compare to NCAA? Should U.S. college hockey be worried about Canadians staying at home? What are the differences in quality?
“If we played a Division I team from the NCAA,” Goyette said, “it would be close. If you look at their lineup, for Wisconsin or Cornell, for instance, they have a lot of national team players. So skill-wise, I don’t think we can win. Can we compete? Yes. And every year we’re getting better. But I don’t have the depth of skill players on my team right now.”