Martlets, Team Canada coach checks in from the road to Vancouver

From left to right, Team Canada’s McGill Four:  Charline Labonté, Catherine Ward, Peter Smith, and Kim St-Pierre. / Photo: Marco Marciano/Hockey Canada
From left to right, Team Canada’s McGill Four: Charline Labonté, Catherine Ward, Peter Smith, and Kim St-Pierre. / Photo: Marco Marciano/Hockey Canada

By Jim Hynes

Canada Hockey Place will be packed to the rafters and millions of televisions will be tuned-in when the Canadian women’s hockey team faces Slovakia on Feb. 13, the first full day of the 2010 Vancouver winter Olympics. But before the puck drops, there are still some smaller barns to play in, Midget boys teams to fine-tune their game against, and one last, big batch of laundry to be done.

Team Canada Assistant Coach and current Martlets Head Coach Peter Smith is one of four McGill-connected members of the team, which is seeking its third-straight gold medal at the Olympics (Salt Lake City in 2002 and Turin in 2006).  He is joined by Martlets netminder Charline Labonté, an Olympian in 2006, two-time Olympian Kim St-Pierre, who starred in goal with the Martlets from 1998 to 2004, and Catherine Ward, a 22-year-old who graduated last spring as the top-scoring defenceman in McGill history.  All three earned CIS all-Canadian honours while playing for McGill. Labonté, 27, is expected to return to the Martlets in the fall, while Smith is currently on a one-year sabbatical from the University.

The players have been living in Calgary since last spring, when the team centralized in order to train and play together in the months leading up to the Games. Smith joined them in July.

“It’s obviously been a change,” said Smith, checking in from northern Alberta as the team winds down its pre-Games exhibition schedule. “But the players are doing great. They are great people and hockey players. They work so hard, and they’re really doing a good job. Kim and Charlie have been through this before, but for Catherine it’s the first time she’s been centralized so there’s some adjusting to do.”

Indeed, the pair of veteran goaltenders have been there and done that when it comes to women’s hockey’s highest level, but the experience is a new one for Ward, whose roster spot was only confirmed a few days before Christmas.

“But she’s playing great,” Smith said.  “She’s a really skilled player. She sees the game so well, it’s as if she has eyes on the back of her head. Those attributes really help in her terms of adjusting to the level of play. She’s been terrific.”

After a few last exhibition games, the team will head to Jasper, Alberta for a five-day pre-competition camp.  It will then head back to Calgary for what Smith calls a ‘”laundry fest” before heading to Vancouver on Feb.7.

Even from the other side of the country, Smith, a Montreal native and McGill grad (BEd’79), checks in with his Martlets squad regularly. He even caught a few of the two-time defending national champions’ games when he was back in the city over the holidays.

“I certainly keep my eye on the team. I talk to (Interim Head Coach) Amey Doyle on a regular basis and I talk to a lot of the players,” he said. “I’m really proud of how hard they are working. It’s really rewarding for me to see how well they are doing this year.”

But for now, especially as the excitement builds in the days leading up to the Games, Smith’s focus is entirely on his current charges.

“This is my second Olympics so I have a pretty good idea what’s coming. Yes, it is getting exciting, especially for the players. But as coaches we keep our focus on the preparation of the team. Clearly, it’s going to be a little bit different because the Games are here in Canada and, let’s face it, hockey is a sport of interest to most Canadians,” he laughed.

More McGill Olympians announced

Like Peter Smith and the women’s team, Canada’s men’s hockey squad also features a coach with strong McGill ties.  Head Coach Mike Babcock, the current bench boss of the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, is a former Redmen and McGill Grad (BEd’86).

In addition to Babcock, Smith, and the three players on the women’s hockey team, one more current student and eight other McGill graduates have been named thus far to participate at the Winter Games in Vancouver next month, bringing the total number of McGillians headed to Vancouver to 14, four more than the previous Winter Olympics high of 10 (Turin 2006). Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., a part-time Management student, will defend the Olympic freestyle moguls title that she won in the 2006 Turin Games. Graduates also include former hockey Martlet Laura Ruhnke (BCom’05), a defenceman with the Swiss national hockey team, and speedskater Tyson Heung (Bed’05), a Montreal teacher and Brampton, Ont., native who is competing for Germany. Stephen Gough (BA’98), is a coach with Canada’s short-track speedskaters

Also headed to the Games are IOC member and former McGill Chancellor Richard Pound (BCom’62, BCL’67), IOC employee Howard Stupp (BEng’78, LLB’83, BCL’83),  Derek Covington (MA’92) of the Canadian Olympic Committee, physcian Dr. Connie Lebrun (MDCM, 1981) and sports psychologist Dr. Wayne Halliwell (MA’73).