Profile Natalie Spooner willing to do dirty work needed to win hockey gold
27-year-old takes on a leadership role as Canada chases 4th straight Olympic championship
When she is on her game, Natalie Spooner can be one of the most complete players in women's hockey.
The right-shooting veteran with the Canadian women's national team has the size, at five-foot-ten and 180 pounds, speed and tenacity to be a star. She can score goals and her defensive game is rounding out.
The trick for the 27-year-old from Toronto is to find the consistency that will make her a star. That was evident in November when she was held pointless in three games during the 4 Nations Cup in Tampa Bay. There were moments when she looked like she would take over the game with her speed and determination to chase down pucks.
And then there were moments when she, well, disappeared.
"I don't know if 4 Nations was my best tournament, but hopefully moving forward I can use that and generate more offence, get more pucks to the net and score some more goals," Spooner said recently. "I think I am a big body and I try to use my speed to take pucks wide and get them to the net."
Canada is going to need Spooner's offence if it hopes to have a chance against the U.S. and win a fourth straight Olympic gold medal. Since the most recent Games in 2014, the Americans have won every world championship and 4 Nations Cup event.
Spooner had two goals and four points in five games during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi and knows her team will be looking for more offence from her in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
"They haven't literally said that or put the pressure on me, but I like scoring goals," Spooner said. "If I can be dirty around the net and put some in, or drive pucks to the net for my teammates to put rebounds in, then I believe I am doing my job."
If the coaching staff has left her alone regarding offence, it has made it crystal clear she need to improve her play in the defensive zone.
"I think that has been something I have been harped on the past few years to improve," Spooner said. "Obviously I love playing offence and I love having the puck and playing in the other team's end, but I have definitely tried to focus more on my defensive play and I believe I have improved.
"I feel comfortable in the D-zone in terms of what I need to do to get the job done, getting the puck out of our end."
Another area of importance to Spooner is being a leader. Having been through an Olympic tournament once, she knows she can be of assistance to the young players on the team making their Olympic debut.
"I think these past few years I have started to take on a leadership role, obviously trying to learn from the past leaders like Carro (Caroline Ouellette) and Wick (Hayley Wickenheiser)," she said. "I saw how they treated me when I first came in and I am trying to do that for the younger girls; make them feel comfortable so they feel confident to perform their best. That is going to make our team the best it can be."
Players new to the organization walk a fine line between being humble and respectful of the veterans, and doing what needs to be done to be chosen to play on the Olympic team.
"One of the biggest things Wick told me was to not worry about what anybody else thinks; just go out there and play my game because that's why they brought me here," Spooner said. "You have to go out and play your game because that is really the only thing you can control."
While Spooner concentrates on improving her game and helping the team find the chemistry to take a serious run at the Americans, she also is a huge proponent of girls hockey and goes out of her way to promote the sport.
"I think it is important," Spooner said. "When I was 13 I got to meet Jennifer Botteril and see her gold medal. That really sparked my dream to want to go to the Olympics and win my own gold medal. I think it is so important for young girls to have role models and to see that you can play sports into college or past college into adulthood.
"The numbers are crazy in terms of girls who play sports and then just drop out because of body issues or they simply don't want to be active. It is so important to keep girls in sports, even if they aren't going to play competitively, they can still play for fun."
Playing in the Olympics is the pinnacle for female hockey players. They are not chasing million-dollar contracts so an Olympic gold is as good as it gets. Spooner can't wait to play in her second Games.
"I am really excited," Spooner said. "The first one was really kind of a whirlwind and it went by so quick. You try to take it all in, but there's so much new stuff happening. This time, knowing what to expect, I think I am excited to play on that stage again…embrace the pressure and go and have some fun."