The three-time Canadian Olympic gold medalist (2002, 2006, 2010) is truly one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet. Today, she does triple duty as a high-performance hockey instructor, keynote speaker, and broadcaster with the NHL’s New York Islanders.
Botterill understands how the 10 teams who were hoping to compete at this year’s IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship in Halifax and Truro, Nova Scotia this year are feeling. Back on 30 March 2003, she got the unfortunate news at Team Canada’s Calgary hotel that the upcoming Women’s Worlds in Beijing, China were cancelled due to the SARS outbreak. So 2020 is a kind of deja vu.
The Toronto resident recalled the way she processed the disappointment as a 23-year-old forward: “It’s a tough decision. As an elite athlete, you are so looking forward to those tournaments. World Championships are a real highlight in your career. It was a difficult time back in ’03. But I think at the same time, as a human being and as an athlete, you just had to respect the realities of what the world was facing and make sure that everyone’s health was the top priority.”
Still, it couldn’t have happened at a more inopportune time for Botterill. The 2001 Women’s Worlds MVP was coming off her record-setting – and still never-equalled – second Patty Kazmaier Award. As the top player in U.S. women’s college hockey, she’d just established a new NCAA single-season record of 112 points with Harvard University. (It stood until U.S. sniper Natalie Darwitz got 114 points for the University of Minnesota in 2005.) Moreover, Canada was favoured to capture its eighth consecutive Women’s Worlds gold medal.
So Botterill had been poised to dominate on Chinese ice in 2003. But now the swift-skating, Winnipeg-raised phenom had to focus on staying mentally tough at home in Canada.
“My dad has worked for years in sports psychology and performance psychology,” said Botterill, who also got a psychology degree at Harvard. “He’s always been so helpful for perspective. It was an emotional time, so I maintained a very strong level of communication with my family leading up to the decision [of the cancellation]. My parents have always given me unconditional support, and I’ve always been very close with my brother. I relied very heavily on them in terms of having the conversations.”
Objectively, Botterill was already a national team veteran at this point, with Olympic gold and silver medals and three Women’s Worlds titles under her belt. So she was well-placed to console four young Canadians who had been eager to make their Women’s Worlds debut in 2003: forwards Gillian Apps and Cherie Piper, defender Gillian Ferrari, and goalie Charline Labonte.
“I still remember very clearly what it was like to be the 18-year-old going to your first event. I remember talking to them and saying: ’There’s no doubt you are going to have opportunities.’ And fortunately for all them, they did have opportunities with Team Canada ahead. There was a little quote my dad had: ‘Delay doesn’t mean denial.’”
Indeed, all four of the aforementioned players went on to multiple gold medals. Accordingly, Botterill’s message should resonate for forwards Victoria Bach and Sarah Fillier and defender Claire Thompson. Bach, the 2019 CWHL Rookie of the Year with the Markham Thunder, and the two current Princeton University stars were named to the 2020 roster that didn’t go to Nova Scotia.
There’s yet another parallel between what happened after SARS and the current situation. Subject to the official approval of the IIHF Congress, Halifax and Truro will get another chance to host in 2021. And of course, in 2004, it was Nova Scotia hosting the Women’s Worlds for the first time with a then-record attendance of 89,461. Just like at the 2003 World Juniors and the 2008 men’s Worlds, this Maritime province got loud and proud.
“I still remember being in the locker room, and about 10 minutes before we went out to start the game, we could hear the fans,” Botterill said. “People stomping their feet, clapping a long time before we even hit the ice. It was fantastic. They were so engaged as an audience! Any time you have a World Championship in your home country, it’s special. But Halifax really was an incredible showcase of how much they embraced sport and the whole tournament.”
Another highlight for the 175-cm, 75-kg forward was playing on a line with two Team Canada greats who would retire with an all-time record of four Olympic golds apiece (shared with IIHF Hall of Famer Hayley Wickenheiser).
“You had Jayna Hefford who was one of the best skaters that ever played the game and had an amazing knack in terms of offensive finish. And Caroline Ouellette was the ultimate power forward with her size and speed. She was a really solid, complete hockey player with great vision on the ice. We all had fun playing with each other.”
The trio was on fire and Botterill had a four-point night in Canada’s 7-1 semi-final rout of Sweden. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for coach Karen Hughes’ team in Halifax. Earlier, a 3-1 qualifying-round loss to the archrival Americans ended Canada’s perfect Women’s Worlds record, dating back to 1990, at 37 games.
“You can’t always predict exactly how the path will go,” said Botterill, who scored the lone Canadian goal in that defeat. “As a high performer, it’s important to learn to adapt to change. For us, there was disappointment because we felt like we wanted to carry on the tradition of Team Canada performing well. But at the same time, we wanted to not overreact. We felt like we could be better as a team. So when we got to that final game and we had the opportunity to face them again, we felt like we’d learned from it and we could be as prepared as possible.”
It paid off. Wickenheiser and Delaney Collins scored and goalie Kim St-Pierre recorded a 26-save shutout in the 2-0 gold-medal victory over the Americans. With a tournament-leading 11 points, Botterill was named tournament MVP again. The ecstatic Halifax crowd included youngsters like future Team Canada members Jill Saulnier and Blayre Turnbull.
The Canadian players departed not only with gold medals, but also great memories of Maritime hospitality, from a big pre-tournament luncheon to a tour of the HMCS Montreal navy frigate, complete with gun salutes and soaring helicopters.
Botterill described what happened after she picked off a clearing attempt by Darwitz, the U.S. captain: “I took the puck wide, and I remember skating toward the goal line and seeing Marie-Philip Poulin in that slot and having the chance to pass to her. She made a beautiful snap shot and finish. After I made the pass, I skated below the goal line and watched the puck go in the net. So every time I see a picture or any video footage of the game, and especially that moment, it gives me chills and brings a smile to my face. Someone actually asked me after the Vancouver Olympics: ‘Jennifer, what was your favourite career goal that you scored?’ I had never been asked that question before. I said: ‘Hmm. You know, it’s not a goal, but it was an assist.’”
Naturally, things are quieter these days with the sports world shut down. As an MSG Networks broadcaster, Botterill misses having insightful conversations with Islanders head coach Barry Trotz, keeping tabs on the “energy and entertainment” that defenceman Johnny Boychuk brings to the team’s blue line, and tracking the progress of the “identity line” of Matt Martin, Casey Cizikas, and Cal Clutterbuck, who saw limited time together this year due to injuries.
At least she can look back at the historic March 8 (International Women’s Day) NBC broadcast, where she covered a St. Louis-Chicago game with an all-female crew that also included A.J. Mleczko and Kendall Coyne Schofield.
Social distancing also means Botterill currently can’t speak to thousands of kids at youth empowerment events like the Canada-wide We Day or address organizations like the Canadian Medical Protective Association or Deloitte Canada.
That said, she is embracing the chance to spend more time with her husband, Adrian Lomonacco, and collaborate with him on Journey to Excel, the hockey training centre they operate together in Toronto. And she’s got her hands full with three young daughters: four-year-old Maya, two-year-old Brooklynn, and seven-month-old Wyllow.
“The kids love riding their bikes and we have some space in the backyard,” Botterill said. “So we’ve made a nice little sports zone in our backyard where we’ve got this plastic surface. It can be for basketball, tennis, or hockey. We’re getting in lots of outside playtime. And then we coordinate our schedules so we can get in some work as well during the day, trying to find our productivity windows.”
This could be the toughest stretch hockey has ever faced since the Spanish flu devastated the world and cancelled the 1919 Stanley Cup finals, and World War II. Yet for someone like Jennifer Botterill, it’s an opportunity to focus on what truly matters.
“Hopefully I can continue to raise a great family, with kids that can be strong and confident and have lots of good choices down the road,” Botterill said. “Life is busy, but I also feel very fortunate. I guess I’m just excited for every day that’s ahead.”