Bound for Sochi

by Jill Barker

When the puck drops on February 8 in Sochi, one current and two former Martlet hockey players will be wearing Team Canada jerseys as Canada takes on Switzerland at the XXII Olympic Winter Games.

For Charline Labonté, BEd’10, playing in the Olympics is old hat. She’s been a member of Canada’s national hockey team since 2000 and has competed in three Olympics (Salt Lake City 2002, Turin 2006 and Vancouver 2010). But that doesn’t mean that the months leading up to the Olympics have gotten any easier.

Training camp is particularly grueling, with two on-ice practices at either end of the day combined with two or three different off-ice workouts in the hours between practices. “I’ve done it before and you always think that it can’t be as hard as the last time, but it always is,” she says of the prep leading up to the Olympics.

Labonté, who was voted McGill’s female athlete of the year in 2008-9 and named the Quebec conference nominee for the 2009 BLG Award for the CIS Athlete of the Year, earned her spot as one of the three Canadian goalies travelling to Sochi well in advance of the official naming of the team.

“She has a lot of confidence. She battles hard for every puck — in games and at practices,” says Martlets head coach Peter Smith, BEd’79, MA’86, a man very familiar with all three of the Martlets alums named to the national team. “She inspires her teammates with her work ethic and her attitude.” “Charline is a tremendously talented goalie, with lightning-fast reflexes and reaction times,” adds Meg Hewings, BA’00, the general manager of the Montreal Stars of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. Labonté played for the Stars last season, finishing with a 2.19 goals-against average.

McGill Martlets star Mélodie Daoust will be
taking part in her first Olympics at Sochi
(Photo: McGill Athletics)

Forward Mélodie Daoust had no idea what to expect when she was invited to the national team’s training camp in Penticton, B.C. and then to Calgary’s centralized camp last summer. Though she was warned by some of the senior players about the intensity of the training, she was still surprised by the packed schedule of those first few months.

“We were at the rink at 7 am and we were finished at 7 pm.” On top of the normal training, Daoust put in extra hours. “At this level, one of the biggest differences is the speed of the game,” she says. “I stayed after every practice to work on my skating. I knew I had to work hard to make the team.”

All that extra effort paid off. Not only was Daoust named to the Olympic squad, her game has improved significantly. “Before, I was mostly an offensive player, but I’m working a lot on my defensive play,” says Daoust, who is taking a sabbatical from her studies in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “I play a lot [on the penalty kill] now and that’s a new aspect of my game.”

As for how she reacted when she got the good news, Daoust, who earned McGill female athlete of the year honours and was nominated for the BLG Award in 2013, was still gushing a week after the Olympic roster was announced. “It was the best news of my life. It’s a dream come true.” When she phoned home to relay the news, “there was crying and yelling.”

Daoust is one of the few rookies to make the team. “She’ll bring a lot of exuberance,” says Smith. “If she gets the opportunity, she can really contribute to the offense. She is a great passer and she has a great shot.” Last year, Daoust earned the Broderick Trophy as Canada’s top player in university women’s hockey, scoring 54 points in only 20 games.

As for blueliner Catherine Ward, BCom’09, she doesn’t have the wide-eyed wonder of an Olympic rookie or the laid back approach of an Olympic vet. With one Olympic gold medal to her credit, she, like the rest of her teammates, is committed to bringing back another one.

That said, Ward admits that the level of competition has changed even in the four years since the Vancouver Olympics, with more skill and depth in the women’s game this time around. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is that the Americans continue to be Canada’s biggest threat, as evidenced by the six-game pre-Olympic series between the two rivals which the Americans won.

But Ward is still confidant that Canada will come out on top when it counts. “I think we’ll be able to beat them,” she says. “It’s been a back-and-forth battle every year, with them winning Worlds and us the Olympics. It’s going to be a tough battle – they’ve got great skills.”

When asked if the rivalry between the American and Canadian squads is as fierce as the media portrays it to be, Daoust laughs. “Pretty much. We don’t like them and they don’t like us. Both teams want to win.”

But she says it would be a mistake to discount the other teams taking part in the Olympics. “Finland and Sweden played hard against us at the Four Nations Tournament [in the fall]. Finland actually beat the U.S. there. We can’t underestimate those teams.”

One unexpected change for the Canadian team occurred recently when head coach Dan Church resigned and was replaced by former NHL coach Kevin Dineen.

“He’s fit in very well with the team and staff,” says Ward, who earned CIS rookie of the year honours playing for the Martlets in 2006-7 and was the CIS Championship MVP during the 2008-9 tournament where McGill took home its second national title. “He brings a new energy to the team that’s refreshing and really good.”

“She sees the ice so well,” says Smith of Ward. “She makes a great first pass. She is Ms. Everything in her ability to play well in all three zones.” Playing for the Montreal Stars last season, Ward was named the CWHL’s top defensive player. Hewings says Ward, a McGill management grad, plays an invaluable role for the team off the ice too. “Thanks to her business acumen, she has helped our management team devise the club’s sponsorship package and corporate business strategy.”

With Sochi only a few weeks away, Ward says the team will be travelling to Austria on January 21 before heading off to Russia and the excitement that comes with pulling on a Canada jersey and stepping on Olympic ice to represent their country.

“I just want to enjoy every moment of the Games because it’s really special,” says Ward, whose thoughts were echoed by both Labonté and Daoust. All three players will have their families join them in Sochi. Daoust says the three McGill members of the team “are very close. Charlie and Wardo are like big sisters.” Facing her first Olympics, Daoust says her more seasoned teammates have offered important advice. “Stay focused on why we’re there. Don’t get overwhelmed. And remember that we’ve been playing hockey since we were kids. We know what we need to do and we can do it.”

A version of this story previously appeared in the McGill Athletics Magazine. Additional files from Daniel McCabe.