In the NHL, you’d be talking about nine-time Stanley Cup champion Scotty Bowman. In Olympic men’s hockey, it’d be two-time gold medallist Mike Babcock. But in Olympic women’s hockey, Melody Davidson, the head coach of the 2006 and 2010 gold medal teams, is the stand-out name.
It’s been years since the 56-year-old native of Oyen, Alberta last served as her country’s bench boss. She was Team Canada’s GM from 2013 to 2018 before handing the reins over to Gina Kingsbury, a forward on both of Davidson’s Olympic gold-medal teams. Still, as Hockey Canada’s head scout, Davidson continues to add to her legacy.
This is the 10-year anniversary of Canada’s historic 2-0 win over the U.S. in the final in Vancouver. On 25 February 2010, an 18-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin scored both goals and rookie goalie Shannon Szabados logged a 28-save shutout. The ecstatic crowd of 16,805 at Canada Hockey Place (now Rogers Arena) remains the biggest ever to attend an Olympic women’s hockey game.
If you focus exclusively on IIHF victories, Davidson’s lengthy resume also includes an Olympic gold medal as an assistant coach (2002) and two IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medals (2000, 2007) as a head coach, plus two more as an assistant (1994, 2001). The former Cornell head coach (2003-06) was inducted into the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2011.
IIHF.com interviewed Davidson earlier this month at the very same place in Vancouver before their Rivalry Series game against the United States.
What does it feel like to be back in the building where you won your second straight Olympic gold medal as a head coach?
Well, you kind of have to think about it. Like, it was 10 years ago, right? It’s hard to believe it was that long ago. You’re so focused and in the moment that you start to realize now how much you don’t take in about your surroundings and different things.
We talked about it this morning when we were at the rink. We were standing on the bench and one of the players goes, “That’s where the families were sitting.” I talked about how I used to come out with about five or six minutes left in the intermission and just stand there and take in the crowd.
They were all talking about how it was on the bench. Marie-Philip Poulin, Jennifer Botterill, and Gina Kingsbury were our fourth line at the time, right? And they scored the winning goal. But they were joking around today: “Yeah, we sat here. We didn’t move a lot, but we sat here!” That’s the way it goes in those big games.
It’s kind of cool when you look back and think about it and where Hockey Canada House was in the Olympic Village. It would have been nice if the weather had been better today to go out and go for a walk and retrace some of those steps. But it’s pretty cool.
She was more than capable. I can’t say I would have projected it, no. Not at all. But generally, in these games, the first and second lines eliminate each other on each team. It’s your third and fourth lines that are going to win you games or championships. And I’ve said that for years. I said it and thought it and believed it when I coached.
So the importance of what your third and fourth lines look like is crucial there. We knew we had a lot of talent on those two lines and we felt we could potentially outplay the other teams’ third and fourth lines. Those opportunities came up for them and they made the most of it.
Who would you identify as the unsung hero or heroes from 2010?
I think Poulin obviously was the unsung hero. I mean, that whole line with Bots, Gina, and Pou definitely, right? Even Meghan Agosta was a young player at that time as well. And the 4-on-4 goal [Poulin] scored [on Agosta’s set-up to make it 2-0]...we were laughing about it this morning. When I called those two, they sort of gave me a look like, “Are you sure?” Because I’d never played the two of them together, hardly at all, all year. But we had a deep team that year. Everybody was more than capable of winning games for us and competing.
We had prepped a lot through the Alberta Major Midget League [during pre-Olympic centralization]. We’d had a lot of good games through that. We knew our goaltending was solid. So Szabby [Shannon Szabados], with her first Olympics, came in as an unknown and definitely for most people was a surprise starter.
Meghan Agosta was the tournament MVP. What was the evolution you saw in her game from a 19-year-old Olympic rookie in Turin to the leading scorer in Vancouver with 15 points?
Again, she started off on another young line. Our fourth line in Torino was Sarah Vaillancourt, Gina Kingsbury, Katie Weatherston, and Agosta. Back then, you only had 18 skaters. So we went with five D and 13 forwards. And that fourth line, we called them the “Water Bugs.” They were incredibly gifted offensively. And we knew they would light the lamp, which they did.
As she evolved, got older, and played some college hockey – I mean, in Torino, she was just coming out of high school – she got stronger on her skates and less individual, more team-oriented. But still, the offensive skills she has, you can’t teach them. We don’t have a lot of players, even since then, that have come along as offensively gifted as Meghan and Marie-Philip Poulin, a lot of those young players who played in those two Olympics.
Speaking of young players, Loren Gabel had six goals at last year’s Women’s Worlds, and Victoria Bach has scored four goals against the U.S. so far this season. Can you see them growing into the clutch role that Poulin has filled for so many years?
Definitely. You saw it with Bach [and her 3-2 overtime winner] at the game in Victoria, right? For sure. They both have played in high-profile games. Gabel was a Patty Kazmaier Award winner and won national championships with Clarkson.
They’re smaller, so the importance of what they do off the ice to make sure they can compete physically and mentally with what’s coming at ’em is sort of where they’re at right now. But they’re very gifted, and as time goes by, I think you’re going to see a lot of them in China [at the 2022 Beijing Olympics].
Our ’99 crop is incredibly talented. Amy Potomak, Sophie Shirley, Daryl Watts – that group is very talented. Coming out of the U18’s, they were very individual players. Not a lot of transition in their games. And it’s taken longer for all them to adjust to the quicker pace, the work ethic you need off the ice, the fitness, and how you have to look after yourself. So that whole ’99 crop, you’re remiss if you don’t talk about Amy Potomak and Sophie Shirley with that group. They’re just talented.
The biggest thing they need to understand is that you don’t walk on to the senior-level team to the number one line. When you come to a college team, your coaches have already spotted you in. You don’t have to necessarily sometimes – especially when you’re as talented as they are – work your way up in the lineup.
When you come to a senior or Olympic team, you’ve got to work your way up the lineup. Marie-Philip Poulin is a prime example. She was on the fourth line in 2010. She wasn’t even on the first line in 2014. She was like a third-liner at that time, right? So I think understanding that and what you have to do to play on those lines is essential.
I talked about that fourth line with the ’06 group. They understood they couldn’t give up goals, and they worked hard. They weren’t great defensively, but they sure worked hard and battled to make sure pucks didn’t end up in their net when they were on the ice. And it wasn’t pretty. I think Daryl and Amy and Sophie, as well as Emma Maltais – she’s a ’99 too – they’re learning that now. They’re learning that scoring’s not just going to put you on the team.
Number one, you’ve got to earn your teammates’ respect. And you only earn that through hard work and commitment. You’ve got to earn the coaches’ respect, and we all know that coaches don’t like turnovers and pucks going in their own net. And then you’ve got to believe in yourself. That’s a weird combination for young kids to put together.
So those girls are all talented. They’re all going to get opportunities, and some already have. It’s going to be about what they can do with them and making sure they always put a positive taste in people’s mouths when they’re with the group.
At any Olympics, there are always narratives coming at you from the media. How do you keep a Canadian team focused under that intense spotlight?
I think that playing in the Alberta Midget Hockey League helps. Wherever we go, people aren’t saying, “Are you going to win the gold medal?” They’re like, “Will you bring the gold medal back to our town? To Lloydminster? To Calgary? To Red Deer?” Wherever it might be. There’s an expectation there that we live with all year when we play in that midget league.
So when we get to the Olympics and we get to that stage, the girls have already dealt with people saying those things to us, expecting that from us. Coming to Vancouver, we were prepared for it. You’ve got your answers. You’ve answered so many times through the year that it’s nothing, right?
I think the challenge for us in Vancouver was the lack of parity at times and having to stay on top of our game. I think if the girls had their way, they might not have been as harsh when they played other teams that weren’t quite at their level. But I was a firm believer that you can’t turn it on and turn it off. We were preparing to win the gold medal, and whatever that meant, whether it was 18-0 with Slovakia or whatever, that wasn’t any sign of disrespect. It was, “This is the level you’re at. This is the level we’re playing. And if we take our foot off the gas or compensate or do something here, that could cost us down the road.”
What are some things from the Olympics you kept that have sentimental value for you?
[laughs] It’s funny. Lauriane Rougeau and I were walking back after practice today and we were talking about all the clothing we garner and the fact you never part with your Olympic clothing: “This was this and this was that.” So yeah, I definitely still have all that stuff.
In terms of mementos, I always kept a game puck from every game I coached in. So I have a case with five pucks from the Vancouver Olympics with a little plaque on it. You have your pictures on the walls and different things that remind you of it.
As coaches, we don’t get a medal. So we have these [miniature replica medals] that we got, sort of duplicates. I wear them all the time. All the staff got them. So you’re able to at least have something that you can show people or talk about with people. And also, our players were always great about, say, a month or two afterwards, loaning their medals to us, to be able to share with our family and friends and communities.
Nothing, really. When Gina was hired, she was hired with the thought that down the road she would take over. So it was more the stuff we did in the years leading up to that. There was no, “Here are the things to think about or remember.” It was more like, “Good luck!” [laughs] But she knew it was coming, right?
So you’ve got to experience it sometimes. I think it’s kind of like being an assistant coach. You think that you can do something more than the head coach, something different. You don’t really understand exactly what they did until you become the head coach. I think she stepped into that role and she started to realize that a lot of the things that maybe she wondered about or wasn’t sure about or couldn’t see why I didn’t do it this way or that way, they started to become clearer.
And then she also forged her own path. I thought she did a great job of not relying on me and not asking me questions, almost distancing herself to try and make sure. It’s an abnormal situation, if you will. I was her coach, then I was her boss, and now she’s my boss. So she did a great job of creating some space so that when she was thinking about things and doing things, it wasn’t like her coach or boss standing there.
This year, she’s a lot more comfortable. She’s kind of been through the wringer a bit. So now, we converse a lot more than we did probably the first year. Initially, I wasn’t expecting that, but when she told me where her mindset was, I completely understood. I’d always been in charge in her life, from the time she was 16 or 17, right? So she definitely needed to find her own space and figure out how she was going to work with me and how we were going to work together, as my boss.
Did you always see this GM potential in Gina?
Not necessarily when I was coaching her and she was playing. But over time, I got to know her through the 2010s and after she left and went to [the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton] and became a skills coach and a coach.
She had a lot of opposite traits from me. I think if you’re going to make any changes, you definitely want to go with some opposites of whoever was there before. You don’t want the same old, same old, right? She has a great business mind. She’s bilingual. I wasn’t bilingual. She carries herself a lot differently than I carried myself. She was a former player. And, like, I have relationships with the players, but it’s different than the relationship she has. My experiences in our program as a coach and scout and GM are different than hers as a player. So it’s a different viewpoint.
But yeah, definitely through 2010 to when we started talking about what it would look like whenever I moved on or maybe they got rid of me [laughs], the question was who would be the best [replacement]? And as I would look at the pictures on the wall and think, “What about this player or that player?”, there were a lot of good people. You had to be willing to move to Calgary. There probably were five or six people who were more than capable, or even more. But a lot of them weren’t interested in picking up their roots and moving them to Calgary. It just sort of fell into place, and she’s been outstanding.
Speaking of changes, earlier this season the Toronto Maple Leafs replaced Mike Babcock with Sheldon Keefe. Is there a little bit of a parallel to be drawn with the national team’s shift from Perry Pearn to Troy Ryan, with due respect to everyone’s coaching background?
I can’t overly comment on that. I didn’t have anything to do with it or any part of it, right? But Perry did a great job in laying a terrific base for us. Sometimes it’s just that a move has to be made.
I think [Vegas Golden Knights GM] Kelly McCrimmon said it when he made the change with Gerard Gallant. Sometimes you’ve just got to make a change. But yeah, that wasn’t really in my wheelhouse on that change.
As Hockey Canada’s head scout, what is the most rewarding part of the job for you?
Getting back in the rinks, back in the trenches, talking with the coaches, and seeing what’s actually happening at Ground Zero. Because sometimes you lose touch with that. But I really enjoy getting in the rinks and chatting with the coaches.
I have a great network from the time I coached in the NCAA. I’m very familiar with all those coaches. I know all of our U Sports coaches well. Then, as you go through the years with the club coaches, you’re starting to see more and more of our players coaching, more and more people that you’ve had connections with.
What does your year look like?
We have a team of regional scouts. We have one in every province and three in Ontario. So I have my team. Our season runs July 1 to June 30. That’s kind of our swing, with our real sort of quiet time being from the May long weekend to the July long weekend. The rest of the time, you’re on the road or you’re watching online or whatever.
In July, we go really hard with the provincial camps, so the U16 and U18 groups. In August, our whole team comes into the camps in Calgary and we do professional development and we’ll bring in NHL scouts or different pieces, whatever we think we need for development. We review all our criteria. We debrief the previous year. We go through all our upcoming players and what we’re seeing out there, what it’s looking like. We scout and evaluate all the games, obviously, in Calgary. Then we have a full schedule.
We’ll see over 2,000 games as a group and write over 5,000 player reports throughout the year. Our regional guys are in charge of the U18s, mostly, in every province. So they do all that work, and then I come in and spot-check a lot of that.
I focus on the NCAA and our senior players. Right now, we’re in the middle of creating our mid-season lists. We’ll eventually narrow those down. At the U18 level, we work hand in hand with each of the provinces. So our guys are tied to those provinces and spend a lot of time with them. Then things kind of wrap up here. We’re on the downslide, actually, as we come through. We have a few trips left, but now it’s basically playoffs and the World Championships and then into the Esso Cup, our Canadian club championship. It’s pretty steady.
Well, they all know each other now. Back then, they never played together. They didn’t know each other. No Instagram! I think there was more...“hatred” is a hard word, but there was more of a hatred there. I think there’s still competition, the rivalry, the not wanting to lose to the opponent. But they spend a lot of time together. I think they learn from each other as well. It’s healthy.
Back then, the rivalry was healthy too. It was just in a different way, because I don’t know that they were real people to each other, right? They didn’t have the same interactions – as a big group, that is. I mean, the odd one or two did. But not like it is now.
As a coach, did you have any rules about how your players could interact with the Americans?
No. None whatsoever.
How about the Finns? What has made them a more dangerous opponent for Canada since the 2017 Women’s Worlds?
They’ve always been dangerous. At the ’02 Olympics, we were down 3-2 to them going into the third period of the semi-finals. I think the difference is just confidence. They believe they can beat us. They’ve always been skilled enough. They’ve always had outstanding goaltending.
They were always my worst worry as a coach. I hated playing them in the semi-finals. Beating the U.S. in the round-robin was nice, but it was nicer because you didn’t have to play the Finns in the semi-finals, right? They’ve had a tremendous program. It’s just confidence. They really believe they can win and that’s what’s put them over the top.
Years ago, they used to trap and play a real boring game, try not to get beat badly. But again, I think that’s a mindset. If you believe you can beat people, you go after them. And they believe and they go after us.
Who are your go-to people in the hockey world for advice or feedback?
I just listen. I always used to get asked about role models or mentors or whoever. I think coming up through the system, I was the only woman all the time. Nobody ever talked to you among coaches or at seminars, so you got to be a pretty good listener.
That said, I always had people I could phone. Like if I wanted to talk about the power play, I could call Derek Laxdal with the Dallas Stars, who was with [their AHL affiliate in] Texas previously. I came up in the system with Geoff Ward, Bill Peters, Mike Babcock, so many of the guys now that are coaching. On those ends, technical, tactical, you ask a lot of questions on whatever you want to address. But I’ve always really believed in taking the best from people, whether it’s a five-year-old kid or a 50-, 60-, or 70-year-old.
I was real fortunate to grow up in Alberta at a time when we had Clare Drake, Wayne Fleming, Dave King, Tom Renney, Mike Johnson. So many guys like that were everyday presenters in communities and seminars. I feel like I know who to talk to if I have a question, but it could be one of 12 people. And a lot of times I just listen, observe, and surf a bit, read a bit, and figure out what I’m going to do or say, and then go from there.
Finally, what will be the key to getting that gold medal back at the Women’s Worlds in Nova Scotia for the first time since 2012?
Continuing on the trek we’re doing. I think definitely we want our specialty teams to put points up, which they did the other night [in the 3-2 Rivalry Series overtime win over the Americans in Victoria]. Just building the core of this team and helping them to believe and understand that they can win and be successful. So we’re already well on that path. It’ll just be staying with the process.