‘Big-game player’

Jayna Hef­ford re­peat­edly came up huge for Canada on the world stage

The Province - - SPORTS - LANCE HORNBY lhornby@post­media.com

When Team Canada needed a game-break­ing goal, it looked to Jayna Hef­ford.

Even if she wasn’t al­ways where you’d think a game­breaker would be.

Per­haps the best pure scorer for the multi-world and -Olympic women’s hockey cham­pi­ons in the view of Hay­ley Wick­en­heiser, Hef­ford could of­ten be found “sit­ting in the weeds,” laughed her for­mer team­mate.

“Jayna was a big-game player who had the abil­ity to find open spa­ces to skate and to find an open net,” said Wick­en­heiser, now as­sis­tant di­rec­tor of player de­vel­op­ment for the Maple Leafs. “And she was able to play for a very long time.”

Hef­ford heads to the Hockey Hall of Fame on Mon­day, with only Wick­en­heiser ahead of her in games played (267), goals (157) and points (291) for Canada. Both are vet­er­ans of five Olympic women’s hockey tour­na­ments, start­ing with 1998’s bit­ter de­feat to the United States in Nagano, that put a fired-up Cana­dian pro­gram on course to win ev­ery gold medal since. It started with Hef­ford’s game win­ner against the U.S. in 2002 in Salt Lake City. The right winger was in 12 of the first 16 women’s world cham­pi­onships, earn­ing seven golds.

Her be­gin­nings were a tale that Don Cherry would love, a good Kingston, Ont., girl with pas­sion for the game, look­ing for her break as a teenager. It came partly be­cause Grapes’ good buddy and lake­side neigh­bour Doug Gil­mour lived a few doors away from the Hef­fords and agreed to her re­quest to join a sum­mer skate with other NHLers.

“All the way grow­ing up, I thought I’d play in the NHL,” Hef­ford said. “That was my goal. Com­ing from Kingston, there was cer­tainly a big con­tin­gent who had great ca­reers. (Fel­low in­ductee) Martin Brodeur might be happy to hear I was a New Jersey fan since (Kingston’s) Kirk Muller was play­ing at the time.

“Ob­vi­ously, Doug was a player I loved to watch, and then ob­vi­ously I was a big Wayne Gret­zky fan. At the time grow­ing up through the 1980s, he was cer­tainly some­one I looked up to.

“Now, when I talk to groups of kids, or cor­po­rate groups (Hef­ford is the in­terim com­mis­sioner of the Cana­dian Women’s Hockey League), I of­ten say the most amaz­ing thing was I never got the mes­sage as a young kid that I couldn’t play in the NHL be­cause I was a girl — or I shouldn’t think that way be­cause hockey is a boys’ sport.

“I don’t re­mem­ber any of those neg­a­tive sto­ries. I’m sure my par­ents have a few of things they heard said, but over­all, my ex­pe­ri­ence was pretty pos­i­tive.”

Gil­mour was duly im­pressed when Hef­ford joined the Kingston con­tin­gent.

“She was younger, and her strength wasn’t quite there yet, but she was awe­some,” he told The Ath­letic in Cal­gary. “In our day, we never had girls play­ing, so you don’t have any ex­pec­ta­tions. You could im­me­di­ately tell, watch­ing her play, ‘This kid’s go­ing some­where.’ ”

Hef­ford had taken to the game at age six, nur­tured by her hockey-lov­ing dad, Larry, and brother Mike. By 10, she had been play­ing with boys and then switched to a girls league whose min­i­mum age was 13, but they let her join any­way. By the time she reached her early teens, the women’s world cham­pi­onships had started. Hef­ford was trans­fixed as she watched the 1990 event from Ot­tawa on TV, fol­lowed by the an­nounce­ment that Olympic par­tic­i­pa­tion would be­gin in 1998.

Be­fore reach­ing 20, the 5-foot-5 Hef­ford was star­ring at the Uni­ver­sity of Toronto and, that same year, earned her way on to Team Canada.

“I think she gained a lot of con­fi­dence mak­ing the na­tional team that young,” noted Wick­en­heiser of her first world ti­tle that fol­lowed.

A long and re­ward­ing ca­reer saw a group in­clud­ing Hef­ford, Wick­en­heiser, Geral­dine Heaney, Cassie Camp­bell, Vicky Suno­hara and Caro­line Ouel­lette face off much of the world, but al­most al­ways meet the Amer­i­cans in the fi­nal.

She re­called in The Ath­letic how dif­fi­cult it was in the room af­ter Nagano as a pho­tog­ra­pher strug­gled to get the dis­traught Cana­di­ans to pose with their sil­ver medals.

In her ten­ure, Hef­ford was used 5-on-5 and given lots of spe­cial teams time and was ready to seize her next big Olympic mo­ment. With a stroke left on the clock in the sec­ond pe­riod of the ’02 Games, she ex­e­cuted a back­hand deke that just made it past U.S. stop­per Sara DeCosta, the game-win­ner the year a lucky Cana­dian Loonie was buried at cen­tre ice.

Play­ers such as Wick­en­heiser, Danielle

Goyette and Amer­i­cans Cammi Granato and An­gela Rug­giero were some of the other com­bat­ants in those mem­o­rable clashes, the lat­ter three al­ready in the Hall. Hef­ford ded­i­cated her­self to stay­ing fit and com­pet­i­tive with a younger Cana­dian side, but re­tired fol­low­ing the 2014 Games in Sochi, tied for sec­ond in Olympic scor­ing with 30 points.

“She had that in­nate abil­ity,” said Wick­en­heiser of Hef­ford’s longevity. “She was very driven, but a fairly quiet per­son in the dress­ing room, not a rah-rah type.”

That serves her well off the ice as a mother of three, as well as help­ing the ex­panded CWHL, in which she starred for many years, be­gin­ning with a goal-a-game pace in 2007-08 with the Bramp­ton Thun­der.

It’s pos­si­ble she stays as the league’s full-time com­mish and this week­end might give her the chance to pick the brain of NHL com­mis­sioner Gary Bettman, who is in this year’s Hall class as a builder. Hef­ford also served as as­sis­tant coach to Suno­hara at U of T.

“Through the ups and downs and suc­cess and the losses, I’ve learned a lot about de­ter­mi­na­tion, con­fi­dence, re-in­vent­ing your­self when things aren’t go­ing as well, stay­ing in the mo­ment, team work, work­ing with oth­ers, and lead­er­ship,” she told Hockey Canada’s web­site upon re­tire­ment. “And I think those are all life skills as op­posed to hockey skills and I think they’ll con­tinue to carry with me into my next ca­reer.”

— POST­MEDIA NEWS FILES

Team Canada’s Jayna Hef­ford (left) dur­ing one of her many clashes with Team USA in women’s hockey.

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