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2014-02-25 at 22:18

Irwin returns

By Leith Dunick,
ENERGY 103 104Play Minute to Win it at 7:20 weekdays mornings with Kaile Jaggard and WIN! on your station for 80’s 90’s and Now…Energy 103 104 Click Here!

Haley Irwin’s fans decked themselves out in all manner of red and white, painted their faces, carried homemade signs and descended on Thunder Bay International Airport, nervously awaiting their hero’s return from Sochi.

The Air Canada flight, originally scheduled to land at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday evening, was 45 minutes late.

The delay did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm.

Every few minutes – then every few seconds once the plane finally landed – chants of “Haley! Haley! Haley!” rang out.

Fittingly Team Canada’s gritty forward, and Thunder Bay’s own, held back, allowing the other passengers to pass through the gauntlet that awaited her arrival.

“She’s coming. She’s coming,” they laughed, premature flash bulbs lighting their way through a crowd which numbered more than 100.

Their excitement mounting, the city’s grinning golden girl triumphantly strode around the corner, her second Olympic gold medal hanging nonchalantly around her neck.

The deafening cheer that arose confirmed her presence. 

The 25-year old Irwin, greeted by a crowd half the size when she returned home from the Vancouver Games, was in awe this time around.

“It’s awesome. For everyone to come out and have a warm welcome like that, it’s exciting,” she said.

“You know that when we’re away that Canada is cheering for you, but now to feel that, it’s cool.”

Irwin wasn’t sure what to expect when she landed.

“I knew (there would be) some people, but probably not a crowd this big. It exceeded my expectations for sure.”

Thirteen-year-old Hanna Whalen was there with her friends to support her Olympic hero, dressed in Team Canada gear in a show of unity.

It was Irwin who inspired the teen to keep playing hockey, one of the main reasons she wanted to greet her on her return home.

“The gold medal is really cool. I watched her game and it was really awesome that they won it like that.”

Like most of the country Hanna was on the edge of her seat as Canada took the gold medal game to the limit, scoring twice in the final four minutes to force overtime against their rivals from south of the border.

They won it in the extra frame, the first of two hockey gold medals Canada would claim.

“I really wanted them to get the gold … and they did. That was really awesome.”

Erica Vidotto said it was pretty cool to meet a real live Olympian, who just five days ago was wowing the world, assisting on the game-tying goal that turned the nation into believers all over again.

“I was watching the game at school and the class was all excited and when the puck hit the post we were all in suspense. When they scored it was really awesome and we got all excited. I wanted to support her,” the 12-year-old said.

Seeing the medal was pretty cool too.

“It’s really shiny,” she said. “It’s shiny and it’s heavy and it’s awesome.”

Joseph Gallant brought his three-year-old daughter Sierra to have a picture taken with Irwin. It was the Canadian thing to do, he said.

“I played hockey my whole life,” said Gallant, a one-time Thunder Bay Flyers teammate of the city’s other gold-medal winner Patrick Sharp of the men’s hockey team.

“Growing up in Canada it’s your dream and inspiration to play on the world junior team or the Olympic team.”

Irwin, who missed the first three games of the Olympics with a concussion, said she plans to spend the next couple of days celebrating the win with friends and family, and promised to be a familiar face around town between now and 2018, when she intends to be South Korea hunting for gold all over again.

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