VANCOUVER – “It still feels surreal,” said Caroline Ouellette, reflecting on how Team Canada’s women won their fourth straight Olympic gold medal in Russia this year.
And it should – even considering that the 35-year-old Ouellette, who’s been in on all those golds as well as six world titles, had a first-hand view of the drama as Team Canada’s captain.
Who could have predicted that Canada would trail the archrival Americans 2-0 with under four minutes left to play and then stage an incredible late rally to tie it up on goals by Brianne Jenner and Marie-Philip Poulin? Or that with Canada’s net empty for the extra attacker, U.S. forward Kellie Stack would bounce a rink-length attempt off the goal post? Or that Poulin would score again on a 4-on-3 power play at 8:10 of overtime to complete this spine-chilling comeback?
“We had such an incredible year together,” said Ouellette, visiting Vancouver to participate in the 2014 Hockey Canada Foundation Celebity Classic golf tournament and gala. “We spent months together, preparing for that one moment, that one game. This was by far the most challenging year of all our careers physically and mentally. We had a lot of injuries, a lot of losses, a lot of changes.”
In some respects, the pre-Sochi picture looked similar to Canada’s murky prognosis heading into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Before that tournament, Canada had lost eight straight exhibition games to the Americans. Prior to Sochi, the U.S. won four straight against Canada.
It wasn’t looking good for new head coach Kevin Dineen. The 1984 Olympian and ex-Florida Panthers bench boss replaced Dan Church behind the Canadian bench on December 12, when Church resigned due to philosophical differences with the Hockey Canada braintrust.
Dineen’s decision to remove the legendary Hayley Wickenheiser as team captain and give the “C” to Ouellette intensified the pressure.
Of course, the Montreal-born forward is a highly respected veteran. Ouellette scored the OT winner when Canada beat the U.S. 5-4 in the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medal game. She’s also the third-highest scorer in the history of the NCAA’s University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs and a two-time MVP in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.
Yet even though Wickenheiser still retained a huge leadership role on the national team, the reassignment of the captaincy was still a big move symbolically. Fortunately, it all worked out.
“Kevin came in less than two months before the Olympic Games, and he was a huge difference-maker for our team,” Ouellette said. “He took our team forward. He gave us confidence. He really lifted our spirits. We were so lucky to have his knowledge and expertise. The way he worked with our assistant coaches made us a better team. The season we had, with all the adversity, made us a team that had a never-say-die attitude. We were coming in to fight until the end, no matter what was thrown at us.”
Ouellette can’t say enough about Poulin’s resilience. Just 23 years old, the Beauceville native is now responsible for scoring the gold medal-winning goal in two consecutive Olympics.
“Marie-Philip Poulin, to me, is currently the best player in the world,” Ouellette said. “Why? Because of her skills, work ethic, commitment and passion for the game. I don’t see that going away any time soon. I worked out with her this morning, and I can tell you how hard she works every day. She doesn’t take her success for granted or her spot on the team. I think she’s the leader of the future for this team. She’s extremely shy. She hates the spotlight. That’s what makes her even more special. I think the best compliment I can say about her is that with all her skills, including her vision which is absolutely amazing, every single player on the team would love to play on her line.”
Winning Olympic gold creates all kinds of opportunities for the victors. In the case of defenceman Meaghan Mikkelson and forward Natalie Spooner, it’s opened the door for them to team up in an unfamiliar setting. They’ll be partners on Season Two of The Amazing Race Canada, a reality TV show that involves completing challenges while traveling widely. The show kicks off July 8 on CTV, and Ouellette is looking forward to it.
“This is going to be very entertaining,” said Ouellette with a smile. “Those two cannot get any closer to what it means to be two opposite people. Spooner is always full of joy and energy. She sings nonstop, she dances. Meaghan is really focused on the task. She’s one of the most serious, committed teammates I’ve had. Yet she’s so confident. She wants to win at everything she does. I think they’re going to make a good team. I’m so proud of them for taking on that challenge. I really hope that they do well. No matter the result, I think they’ll make us proud.”
Naturally, it’ll be hard to top winning Olympic gold as a source of pride this year. In the grand scheme of things, Ouellette hopes there’s a ripple effect for women’s hockey that goes beyond the wild, Canada-wide celebrations on February 20.
“What I’m most proud of is to know that 13 million Canadians watched that final game,” said Ouellette. “We really hope that the biggest legacy our team will leave is that thousands and thousands of young girls will want to play hockey.”