Already, veteran sniper Cherie Piper has scored two goals and three assists in Team Canada’s pair of blowout wins in Vancouver. But for the big, strong East York, Ont., native, who plays alongside captain Hayley Wickenheiser, the road to the Games was anything but a cakewalk.
It all started with an ugly injury in a college game between her Dartmouth Big Green and Providence four years ago. When she tore her ACL, she says, everyone at the New Hampshire rink heard the “pop.” It came midway through Piper’s final NCAA season—just nine months after her triumphant return from Turin, where Canada won gold and she finished second on the team in scoring. Following surgery, Piper didn’t get back on the ice for six months, and missed a full year with the national squad.
And just as she was regaining her fitness and timing, her dad Alan died of a heart attack; he’d been Piper’s coach and mentor, had first put her on skates at age eight in a Toronto boys’ league, and ferried her across the city to games for years. “It was tough to finish the season,” says Piper, then with the Mississauga Chiefs of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League. The rink was no longer a refuge; hockey suddenly became a grim reminder of all she’d lost.
Following that season, Piper focused on her family: her mom Christine and older brothers Michael and Stephen, whom she’d followed into hockey. It was an “unselfish time,” she says. But to compete at this level, with scrappy young phenoms—like 18-year-old winger Marie-Philip Poulin—hungry for their big break, athletes need to be a little bit selfish. There came a point, she says, where she looked in the mirror and thought, “My God, I need to start taking care of myself.”
In the summer of 2008, she left Ontario for Calgary, joining the Oval X-Treme of the Western Women’s Hockey League, to focus solely on hockey. But it was too late. Last year, she was cut from Canada’s roster for the World Championships in Finland, where Poulin got her start with Team Canada. Piper, a two-time gold medallist, was devastated and considered giving up the game altogether. At the time, coach Mel Davidson didn’t know whether Piper would pack it in and go home, or “dig in, and say ‘Mel, you made a mistake and I’m going to prove it to you.’ ”
Neither, at first, did Piper. But there “was a moment” where the 28-year-old decided, “I want to be in Vancouver. I need to turn this around.” To ensure that she “never got left off that list again,” she embarked on a punishing training regimen; in the last year, she’s shed 20 lb., and is in peak physical shape.
It’s paid off. In December, the gritty, physical right winger—who is also great on the draw—made the cut for Vancouver. Davidson has returned Piper, the five-foot-six, 167-lb. winger, to the first line, centred by Wickenheiser (rounded out by Piper’s former Dartmouth teammate, Gillian Apps, or Poulin). Her dad, she says, would be proud of her gruelling climb back to the top. “I wish he was here,” she says, her eyes filling with tears, minutes after Canada’s 18-0 win over Slovakia on the first day of Olympic competition. “But I know he’s watching me.”