Jayna Hefford repeatedly came up huge for Canada on the world stage
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.”
Team Canada’s Jayna Hefford (left) during one of her many clashes with Team USA in women’s hockey.