Hockey

Chris Iorfida - Thursday Dec. 5, 2013 11:18 ET

Wickenheiser, Hefford, Ouellette mentor youngsters on Team Canada

Team Canada rookies happy to have great leadership

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Hayley Wickenheiser, right, Jayna Heffor, centre, and Caroline Ouellette occupy the top three spots all-time in games played, assists and points for the Canadian women’s hockey team. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

The newest of the Canadian women’s hockey players are looking to stand on the shoulders of the giants beside them in order to win gold at the Sochi Olympics in February.

They can lean on Caroline Ouellette, who knows what it takes to win. The Montreal athlete is striving for a perfect 4-for-4 when it comes to Olympic championship games.

Jayna Hefford of Kingston, Ont., meanwhile, is looking to win her fifth Olympic medal, and fourth gold.

And then there’s Hayley Wickenheiser of Shaunavon, Sask., who’s only been named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her athletic prowess and contributions to the growth of women's hockey. Like Hefford, her Olympic experience dates back to Nagano, Japan in 1998.

Wickensheiser, Hefford and Ouellette occupy the top three spots all-time in games played, assists and points for the Canadian team (retired great and current assistant coach Danielle Goyette ranks third in all-time goals). The combined ledger is impressive, with over 400 goals in and nearly 900 points in less than 300 games in which at least one of them has suited up for Canada.

The trio of forward greats are the only players among the 24 centralized in Calgary for the upcoming Sochi Olympics born in the 1970s.

It can all be a bit surreal for the players looking to crack the Olympic roster for the first time, many of whom are in the age range where they inspired to pursue their hockey dream from Nagano or Salt Lake City.

“The first time I went to a team meal and I’m sitting at the same table as them … it’s like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here,’” said defenceman Tara Watchorn of her first extended exposure to the pillars of the national team.

Can I have your autograph?

Forward Bailey Bram, for her part, has a childhood picture taken of an autograph encounter with Wickenheiser. Bram, whose face was painted red and white for the occasion, has since been a linemate with the legend at the world championships.

Hefford, Ouellette, and Wickenheiser may all one day be enshrined in the Hockey’s Hall of Fame, and each has forged their own path and are unique in terms of their leadership style and personality.

Jocelyn Larocque may have the best perspective on the trio of any of the Canadian players looking to make their Olympic debut. The defenceman from St. Anne, Man., was just 16 when she suited up in the same locker room with Wickenheiser with the Calgary X-Treme of the Western Women’s Hockey League, and played at the University of Minnesota-Duluth when alumnus Ouellette served an assistant coaching apprenticeship.

But Larocque also has raves for Hefford, who many of the players say rivals anyone on the entire roster in terms of personal warmth despite her reserved exterior.

Hefford also takes the proverbial approach popularized in those old E.F. Hutton commercials.

“You can tell she's someone who thinks a lot before she speaks, so everything she says is so valuable and so knowledgeable,” said Larocque.

An informal survey of centralized players had Wickenheiser ranked as a near-unanimous choice as the most intimidating of the trio to first meet.

“Has anybody not said Wick? That’s shocking to me,” joked forward Vicki Bendus, one of just three Canadians ever to win the Patty Kazmaier Trophy as top collegiate player in the U.S.

Teammates marvel at Wickenheiser’s intensity at the rink and her training and preparation habits, unabated despite her age and elevated status. She is the quintessential lead-by-example type.

“Being known as the best hockey player in the world, that's got to be a lot of stress,” exclaims Larocque. “But she manages it well and she handles it well.”

If you can’t beat ‘em …

It’s a lot of pressure to bear, and more than one player said Wickenheiser does have her share of stress valve moments.

“Once in awhile she'll just randomly start dancing and singing,” said Larocque.

Ouellette was the consensus choice as the funniest of the three, one who easily demonstrates passionate on the ice.

“Caro is more outspoken than the other two,” said forward Brianne Jenner. “She wears her heart on the sleeve, and the girls really respect that.”

Which sets up an interesting dynamic: while it would be shocking to see any of the trio not selected for the Sochi roster, the younger players are competing for playing time with the icons they’ve looked up to.

Among those on the centralized roster, the breakdown of players with Vancouver Olympic experience is two goaltenders, three defencemen, and eight forwards. So it would seem that the likes of Bendus, Bram, Jenner, Kohanchuk, Mélodie Daoust and Natalie Spooner are in the biggest battles for spots.

“I think as a group they make a great mix and you couldn’t ask for a better leadership squad,” said Bram.

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