Haley Irwin was golden in Vancouver.
But with the ever-potent United States squad standing in the way, it might be a little tougher task to bring home women’s Olympic hockey gold this time around.
The 25-year-old, who made a three-day pit stop in her Thunder Bay hometown this week, said it won’t be easy to repeat – and not just on the ice.
“I don’t think there’s anything that will compare to Vancouver,” said Irwin, who joined the national team in 2007.
“Vancouver was an amazing experience, but I think we can use that going into Russia. I understand that the crowds can be big and the crowds can be small. We really don’t know what we’re going to get. But we have a job to do. We have a goal in mind and we’re going over there for a reason.”
The No. 1 reason on that list is to take down the Americans.
Year in and year out it’s Canada and the U.S. fighting for gold at most major international tournaments. The Olympics are no exception.
In Vancouver it was the team from north of the border that once again claimed gold. But with Kevin Dineen stepping in for Dan Church behind the bench – Church unexpectedly and abruptly quit late last year for personal reasons – and the Americans getting the better of Canada recently, it’s a different hockey horizon in 2014.
The U.S. dropped Canada 4-1 in Grand Forks, N.D. last month, then followed up with a pair of 3-2 wins, the first in St. Paul, Minn., the second at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
Finding a way to beat the Americans is a must, said Irwin, the first girl to make a boys AAA hockey team in Thunder Bay.
“We’ve played them seven times this year already,” she said. “Unfortunately they have the winning record now. But for us it kind of shows us areas in our games we need to work on. There are things that we’re good at doing and we need to perfect those things.
“For us it’s about worrying about our team and knowing what we need to do to be successful. And we still have time to perfect those things.”
Irwin said she expects her role will be much the same as it’s been for the past six years.
“The only real change for me is that I’m not a rookie anymore, so I get away with a little bit less and have more responsibility. But my role really hasn’t changed much. I’m a third-line grinder, get some energy, be in the offensive zone and create chances for the other lines to come out,” said Irwin, who led the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Montreal Stars to the Clarkson Cup final in 2012-13.
The Olympic experience is more than just the games and endless hours of practice needed to get to the world stage.
It’s also an experience most athletes will never forget.
Irwin, who won gold at the 2012 world championships – she has three silver medals too – said she wants to make the most of that side of the Games this time around.
“As an individual athlete, playing on a team, going over there the first thing you’re excited about is getting all your gear. All the Olympic gear is waiting there for you to put it on and the opening ceremonies is kind of the send-off for us,” she said.
“It’s an exciting time to meet other Canadian athletes. And it’s bigger than hockey. It’s bigger than me and it’s bigger than our team. It’s Canada as a country and all countries coming together. That’s something that’s really hard to explain to people, that feeling you get when you’re there. But you know, it’s an exciting time.”
Irwin said she’s not sure if she’ll do anything differently this time around. She didn’t bring a camera to the opening ceremonies in 2010, and hinted she might leave it at home in Russia.
“I really wanted to just be there and live that experience. I didn’t want to have to look back on a camera to remember something. I might do the same. Because the memories that I have in my head ... I don’t want to change. It’s so exciting when your country’s called and you walk out there. You just scream and yell, because you don’t know what else to do.”
Irwin has a goal and two assists in six games with Canada in 2013-14.
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