There is something unique about Northwestern Ontario and hockey. It is a regional passion that has persisted for decades, leading to development of incredible hockey talent that brings endless pride and joy for the fans of the region.
As a parent of two daughters, it has been gratifying for me to see female role models in the game pique interest in the sport for young women. My youngest got transported at an early age to meet Hayley Wickenheiser at a sports celebrity dinner; then she was brought to the Thunder Bay Tournament Centre to have a photo taken with Cassie Campbell-Pascall at a hockey camp; and finally, on two occasions, she was taught the nuances of the game by Katie Weatherston at her annual hockey school (after both experiences, her improvement was noticeable and pronounced-thank you Katie).
My daughter touched the gold medals of Hayley and Katie. She also enjoyed a one-on-one session with our quietest Olympic champion, Haley Irwin, who graciously shared her time and Olympic gold medal won in Vancouver with her fans at a local home show in 2010.
Irwin’s career should be celebrated in every respect. She enjoyed remarkable success on the ice. As a star player for the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, she scored the game winning goal when UMD won the NCAA Division I national championship in 2008. Irwin later captained the team in her final season, becoming only the sixth Bulldog to score 200 career points. Her collegiate career was marked with repeated team and personal success.
But the best was yet to come.
During her varsity career, and beginning in 2007, she participated in Canada’s national team program. Irwin’s resume includes two Olympic gold medals (in 2010 and 2014), an Olympic silver medal (in 2018), a world championship gold medal (in 2012) and world championship silver medals (2009, 2011, 2013 and 2017).
A concussion and hip issues cost her some time with the national team after 2015, but she recovered successfully. She retired on her own terms in 2020.
In talking with her, I made the classic mistake of assuming such a remarkable career was seamless and met with no setbacks.
“Oh, I was cut from a few teams,” she chuckled.
As it turns out, she did not make the national team in her first two attempts. How did she overcome those bumps in the road?
“I kept working and didn’t give up. I had a passion for the game and wanted to play,” said Irwin, 33. “I didn’t make sacrifices. I made choices.”
She certainly made great choices, and ones that allowed all Canadians to rejoice at her skill and intensity. And oh how Irwin played, at an incredibly high level. One wonders whether a player of her skill and determination (the quintessential power forward) would make a difference now when the Americans appear to have overtaken our Canadian contingents in major international tournaments of late.
Careers have to end, though, and Haley has enough hardware now for a lifetime. I wondered where all the physical hardware lies.
“They are in a drawer down here”, she said, speaking from her office at Ryerson University, “Want to see them?”
I declined the opportunity, having seen one of her shiniest medals already. Having deduced her modest and understated demeanour, I was not totally surprised to hear the location of her medals.
Over the course of an hour, we spoke online about her career, her disappointments, her current position and the challenge of playing a sport where the expectation of the Canadian public is perpetually fixed on harvesting gold medals, and only gold medals. I suggested that winning a silver medal in international competition is an incredible achievement and that Canadians should take enormous pride in the effort and skill of our women’s teams.
Haley acknowledged that it has taken some time to accept the beauty of a silver medal, that you do indeed win a silver medal. “I had to learn to be proud of a silver medal before I could expect anyone else to be.”
In terms of the future of international women’s hockey, Haley sees Finland being on the rise, Sweden as slipping backwards and Russia starting to pay more attention to the women’s game. She remains optimistic and hopeful that Canada will remain competitive in the future and will win its share of competitions (if one ever gets played again).
And what is she up to now? Irwin serves as an assistant coach for the Ryerson women’s hockey team. It has been difficult in the past for elite hockey players to become great coaches (see Gretzky, Wayne).
She acknowledges that she had a learning curve to overcome when she began to coach, suggesting that her objective is to help players “see the game” and to make “split second decisions.”
Haley wants her players to “trust their instincts,” but discovered, as any good teacher will tell you, that sometimes “you have to explain things three different ways” to get your point across. At the end of the day, she helps the players be the best they can be, to realize their own potential and, most importantly, to have fun.
There is a total lack of bravado and self-promotion to Haley Irwin. The shy, modest young woman I recall meeting in 2010 remains a shy, slightly older woman, albeit one who has achieved great things.
The gift she gives to younger players, the passing on of knowledge and game acumen, is the natural evolution of a career playing and coaching a game that she still loves. She is a pure delight to talk with, and warms to a discussion about hockey at any time.
Haley Irwin has represented our region and country with distinction. We should be rightly proud of her past and continuing success.
How often, I wondered, do you watch your past Olympic or world championship game videos? It could be a way re-capture the memories of the triumphs, and perhaps the bitterness of defeats at times?
“Never,” she says. And why would she?
She lived it.
Kevin Cleghorn is a Thunder Bay-based lawyer and sports enthusiast.