Just nine months ago it seemed that bench boss Melody Davidson had signed her own marching orders. After an embarrassing 4-1 loss to the U.S. at the world championships in Finland—the second straight year Canada handed the world crown to their archrivals—the head coach of Canada’s women’s hockey team fell on her sword, publicly questioning whether she was right for the job.
“Coaching is coaching, and if you don’t perform, you don’t go on,” she told reporters in Hämeenlinna after the loss—their fourth in six games against the U.S. When you fail, “you have to look from the top down,” she later told Maclean’s. “Maybe Hockey Canada has to look at a change.” Davidson’s frank talk sparked its own controversy. Hockey Canada—which was, in fact, considering “changes,” according to Johnny Misley, vice-president of hockey operations—was “upset” with Davidson’s decision to go rogue. Team Canada, generally run with famed precision, seemed suddenly to be coming undone.
But Canada has countered with an impressive 7-3 record against the U.S. since the summer. And Mel, as the girls call her, kept the job. Yet Davidson, who speaks with a no-nonsense prairie twang, is hardly sitting comfy, calling her squad “fortunate” to have picked up a 3-2 win over the U.S. on New Year’s Day. The native of Oyen, Alta., who may be the last hockey personality who still has the guts to sport a mullet, has been coaching since 1995, when she quit her job as a rec director, and borrowed money from parents Sheila and Jim to attend the National Coaching Institute in Calgary.
(Female coaches are still rare—Davidson, a rink rat whose playing career ended at age 12 because there was then nowhere else for a girl to play, will be the only woman behind the bench at Vancouver.) She took a coaching job at Connecticut College, then with the Big Red at Cornell, and in 2006 led Canada to Olympic gold.
Her style is tough, but straight up—a “kitchen table-talk philosophy” she picked up from her old friend Mike Babcock, coach of the men’s Olympic squad: “When you sit at the kitchen table at home, you laugh, you cry, you smile, you do all those things. But when you walk out the door you don’t run to the neighbours and share all the things that happened there.”
As in 2006, Davidson has prepared her squad with games against boys’ midget AAA teams, games that counted in the AAA standings to ensure full effort. (Team Canada went 16-10.) But in the end, says Davidson, four years of hard work and preparation boils down to “just one day, one game.” And one medal. In women’s hockey, they say, there’s no such thing as silver.