One taste of silver was enough for Canada’s Jayna Hefford who, after finishing second when women’s ice hockey made its Olympic debut in Nagano in 1998, helped her team to four successive gold medals. now an administrator, the joint-most decorated player of all time is dedicating her time to driving the game ever forwards...
Jayna Hefford was there at the beginning and 16 years later she was still there at the top when she bowed out, having helped transform the face and feel of her sport. It is this, not the record medal haul she picked up along the way, that she is most proud of.
“It was an eye-opening thing in those first years because many people around the world didn’t even know women played hockey, including here in North America,” Hefford said, recalling the moment she and her sport made their Olympic debut at the Olympic Winter Games Nagano 1998.
“Now it is such a big part of our culture in Canada specifically and more generally in North America. To feel like you played a part in the evolution of the sport and getting it to a place where it’s a lot more mainstream is great.”
Much has changed since a 20-year-old Hefford was among a phalanx of female players taking to the ice in Nagano. The Olympic pioneers revelled in the opportunity to train properly for the first time and quickly showed what they could do.
“The evolution of the game from one Olympic Games to the next was significant,” Hefford said. “Every four-year cycle the game was faster and the players were bigger and stronger and more skilled. It was certainly a lot more challenging in my last few Games in terms of the training schedules and all the preparation.”
Three factors kept Hefford going, even when life as a trailblazer proved tough. The first was simply the fact that she had the opportunity to do something so many others had been denied.
“There were so many women prior to my generation that were never allowed to play or had to pay to play or just never got the chance to play in an Olympic Games,” the Ontario native said.
The second motivating factor is a recurring one for many great athletes: an overriding passion to “constantly challenge and better oneself”.
Finally, there was a mark that needed erasing from her record after hot favourites Canada were beaten 3-1 by USA in the 1998 final.
“Unfortunately hockey is a sport where you lose a gold medal, you don’t win a silver medal. We felt pretty disappointed. That fuel certainly led me onto my next Olympic Games.”
Hefford never permitted the pain to return. At the very next Games in Salt Lake City in 2002 she scored the gold medal-winning goal against USA and, after triumphs in Turin in 2006 and in front of a hungry home crowd in Vancouver in 2010, she remained on the top step of the podium after a dramatic end to Sochi 2014. Two down with four minutes to go, Canada somehow recovered and won their and Hefford’s fourth successive title with the first ever overtime goal in a women’s Olympic final.
“It’s hard for me to pick just one [favourite] moment, there are certainly a few that stand out,” Hefford said. “Every Olympic Games is so special in its own right. You are with a different group of people, different challenges you need to overcome as a group. I think very fondly of those five teams I was a part of and all we went through.”
Crucially Hefford, who was a standout youth player, was never bothered by the exponentially increasing levels of pressure as she and others, such as teammate Hayley Wickenheiser, extended their record run.
Embracing that pressure was always an important thing rather than letting it weigh you down.Jayna Hefford
“In Canada the expectation is to always win gold, there is no other colour when it comes to hockey,” Hefford said with smile. “We learned to really embrace that pressure. I always thought of it as a great thing, it meant people cared. If people expected you to win it meant that it mattered if you won.
Highlights off the ice were numerous, including playing alongside childhood hero Wayne Gretzky at her first Games and meeting Canada’s two-time figure skating Olympic silver medal winner Brian Orser. But her abiding takeaway from her Olympic experience is a simple one.
“It’s always the people you are doing it with,” Hefford said. “You get to experience so many incredible things, travelling the world, being in the Olympic Village, meeting all the athletes. But ultimately it’s your teammates you are with pretty much exclusively. Over the course of the four-year cycle you go through a lot of difficult times and you go through a lot of great times. You really learn to work with people, respect one another.
“You have your differences but you find a way to accomplish a goal. It’s always the teammates I come back to. That’s the part I really miss and the part I am so thankful for.”
A mother of three, Hefford finally hung up her competitive skates at the end of 2014, but she has never stopped pushing her sport forwards. On retirement, she took up a coaching role before moving on to be commissioner of the Professional Women’s Hockey League. Now she is a lead consultant for the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association.
“The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of our sport, but they only happen once every four years so we need to find a way to get the female players exposure in the years in between,” Hefford said. “The Olympics have proven that women’s hockey is important, people care about it, people want to watch it – some of the television numbers in many different countries are huge.
“It’s just about how we maintain that momentum between every Olympic Games.”