MacKinnon: Canadian women’s hockey team shocked coach quit on them
No decision has been made on how to replace Church
EDMONTON - The resignation late last week of head coach Dan Church hit the Canadian women’s hockey team “like a bomb,” three-time Olympic gold-medallist Caroline Ouellette wrote in her blog on the weekend.
No wonder. Less than two months out from the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the afternoon of a Thursday night exhibition game in Calgary against Canada’s bitter rival, Team USA, was dramatic timing for the exit of the head coach, to say the least.
Reeling from the announcement and playing under Church’s assistants-turned-co-coaches Danielle Goyette and Lisa Haley, Canada was thumped 5-1 by the Americans. That prompted an emergency team meeting right after the game, the players realizing they had to regroup swiftly and on the fly.
Canada rebounded to grind out a 2-1 victory on Saturday night at Edmonton’s Bill Hunter Arena over the Maple Leaf Athletic Club’s midget AAA boys. On Sunday night in Sherwood Park, Canada lost 3-2 to the J. Ennis Kings, completing the northern Alberta portion of their midget AAA series.
“It definitely shakes everybody,” said Hayley Wickenheiser, who will play in her fifth Olympic Games in February.
“You don’t expect it. It’s not something that happens everyday in the women’s game, like you see in men’s pro hockey, where changes are made all the time.
“It’s taken a few days for the group to adjust and move forward,” she said.
The series against the midget AAAs, by now a de rigueur part of Olympic preparation, has been a struggle. The women have fashioned an 8-12 won-lost mark so far and that includes more than a few lopsided losses.
In past Olympic years, the women’s team has dominated this series.
No. 1 goalie Shannon Szabados has missed some time, owing to the recent deaths of an uncle and a cousin. There have been injuries, which made a couple of long road trips that much more demanding as the team played with a short bench.
On Sunday, Wickenheiser and Marie-Philip Poulin were among those not dressed, for example. That removed the team’s top two scorers from the mix. And the women have been in a scoring slump, anyway.
Now the sudden departure of Church, who led the team to a gold medal at the 2012 women’s world championship and silver at the 2013 tournament.
Church told The Canadian Press late last week: “If there isn’t confidence in what I’m doing, I need to step aside and let the team move on.”
Team Canada general manager Melody Davidson, who coached the women’s team to gold medals in 2006 and 2010, is adamant she will not install herself behind the bench this time around.
Goyette, meanwhile, said she, Haley and the team remain unclear on why Church resigned.
“It was more surprising because we don’t know the ‘why,’ ” Goyette said. “If we don’t know the ‘why,’ we stop on that event, instead of being able to move on.
“Sometimes, as women, we don’t move forward as much when we don’t know the facts.”
Goyette said she and Haley are trying to normalize the rupture as much as possible, using it as an admittedly extreme example of what might happen at an “expect-the-unexpected” spectacle like the Olympics.
That is what coaches do, of course, try to turn everything into a positive, even the sudden resignation of their boss.
It is not a foregone conclusion, mind you, that Goyette, a three-time Olympian, Canada’s flag-bearer at the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, and coach of the Calgary Dinos women’s team that won the 2012 Canadian Interuniversity Sport championship, will be promoted to head coach.
“A lot of people have asked me, ‘Are you ready to be the head coach?’ ” Goyette said. “You know, when it happened that day, we’re so busy, me and Lisa, we’re just trying to survive with all the work we have.
“What we want, me and Lisa, is the best thing for the team. If they ask us to be co-coaches and bring in (an assistant) or if they bring a new head coach, what matters is this team is taken care of. We’ll support the decision, no matter what.
“At the end of the day, if you’re in it just for yourself, you’re there for the wrong reasons.”
For clarity’s sake, in the three-game sample Goyette and Haley have worked since Church resigned, the two co-coaches have simply alternated being the lead voice, day by day.
“We’re trying to stay very focused on the plan that’s already been laid out ahead of time and trying to execute that as best as we can,” Haley said. “We’ve had a tough schedule here, three games in four days, so it has been easy to stay in the moment.”
Just who will coach this team remains to be seen.
“They both will be looked at, for sure,” Davidson said of incumbent assistants in a brief telephone interview Sunday. “But we have to look at everything — who’s available to us, what are our best options.
“It’s not just a decision we’re going to make all in one kick, kind of thing. We’ve got to put together some names and look at them.’
Haley launched the women’s varsity hockey program at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, before accepting a similar post at Toronto’s Ryerson University. She’s a capable, experienced coach. But who prepares for this? Like Goyette, she’s letting that process unfold.
“Honestly, myself and Danielle, it’s all about the players right now. We’re focused on them, making sure that they’re ready, we’re taking care of all the details as much as we can.
“Our entire staff has been pitching in. In our eyes, we’re down a man and any time that’s the case, you want to outwork the other side. That’s our focus, pulling together as a unit. We’ll trust upper management to put us again in the best position to win.”
Davidson, in the meantime, is doing the due diligence, but planning to name a head coach as soon as possible.
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