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Irwin puts injuries in her past, Olympics in her future

Two-time gold medal-winning Thunder Bay forward is seeking her third trip to the Olympics, overcoming hip surgery and a concussion along the way.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – Since she won Olympic gold a second time in 2014, it’s been a struggle for Haley Irwin to stay healthy.

After Sochi, Irwin was knocked out of action with a nasty concussion that cost the Thunder Bay forward nine months. She returned to action, only to have surgery on her hip that sidelined her for another lengthy stretch.

Add in a minor injury at the start of the current campaign and it’s been tough to find playing time in order to impress the coaching staff and prove she belongs on the roster in search of a third straight Olympic title.

The 29-year-old, a 10-year veteran with Canada’s national women’s hockey program, shrugged off her injuries as a bump in the road. Not once did she considering giving up her Olympic dream.

“I just didn’t want to go out that way. I just felt like I had more to give and more fight in me. It was about becoming a healthy individual and a healthy athlete,” Irwin said on Sunday, following Canada’s 2-1 overtime win over the United States in St. Paul, Minn. in an Olympic tune-up at the Xcel Energy Center.

“I’m just taking it one step at a time.”

The injuries were a reminder that hockey careers aren’t forever.

With a new group of youngsters aiming to put an end to U.S. dominance of late on the women’s hockey stage, Irwin said her third attempt at an Olympic team spot is that much more special, knowing very well the Pyeonchang, Korea Games could be her last.

She wants to savour each and every moment.

“I think I’m a different player and person because of everything I’ve gone through and for the better,” Irwin said.

“I’m grateful and understand the opportunity that’s in front of me and I want to make sure I take full advantage of it.”

Irwin, who plays for the Canadian Women's Hockey League's Calgary Inferno, is one of 15 forwards vying for a spot on the Canadian roster, one of 12 returnees from the 2014 squad.

Her coach, Laura Schuler, called Irwin an incredible, feisty and smart player.

“She helps us control the game and I think you saw that tonight in her play. She can calm things down for us, for sure, and she’s a presence on the bench and in the locker room – and just an overall good round person,” Schuler said.

Irwin said she’s still got plenty left in the tank, and believes she can play an important role for Canada when the Olympic tournament rolls around.

Against the Americans she played in just every situation imaginable, including time on the power play. Whatever it takes, Irwin said.

“We’re a good hockey club, full of a lot of players that are very talented,” Irwin said. “At any time you can get the tap to go out there. It’s about understanding what your role is at the moment and what your job is.

“Whether that’s standing in front of the net on the power play or going to battle or shooting pucks or scoring goals I think you just have to be prepared for anything.”

Canada opens its Olympic title defence on Feb. 11 against Russia.