“Tough.” That’s how teary-eyed Slovak goalie Zuzana Tomcikova described her team’s 18-0 drubbing at the hands of Team Canada. The five-foot-ten, 161-lb. netminder, who plays for Bemidji State University in Minnesota, says she had never allowed so many goals “in her life” (she may never have faced as many shots—67—either). “I’m really happy my team didn’t quit on me,” says Tomcikova, tears streaming down her face. “They were cheering me on after every single goal. We just need a good night’s sleep.” By then, she was sobbing. “We have to put this game behind us. Tomorrow, it’s a new day.”
That’s about all I could make out through the tears. It was a painful interview. When I tried to tell her how well many of the journalists in attendance had thought she’d played, she cried even harder. I should have told her that I can relate, that I felt her pain; I know what it’s like to have your face pasted by the likes of Hayley Wickenheiser, Colleen Sostorics and Gina Kingsbury.
I’ve since hung up the skates, but until a couple of years ago, I played centre for the B.C. Breakers in the Western Women’s Hockey League, and faced off against Calgary’s Oval X-Treme in league play. Half of its roster was made up of members of Canada’s national team program. The Breakers, on the other hand, was a ragtag bunch of mostly ex-university and college players trying to map out the next phase of their lives; I was then an intern for Maclean’s.
Two of our stars were Americans Ashley Payton and Karen Thatcher, who had moved up from St. Louis and Boston to play semi-pro because the opportunity didn’t exist in the U.S. (Thatcher, a gritty, physical forward, and a good friend, is at the Games competing for Team U.S.A.) We couldn’t afford ice in Vancouver proper, so we practised at a rink in Aldergrove, in the Fraser Valley. We went on at 10 p.m., the last time slot of the night. And we rode the bus to our games, even the ones in Regina (at least once, the team slept on the bus as we chugged across the blackened prairie, arriving the morning of the game).
Games against the Oval were grim, humbling, 10-0 to 14-0 slaughters. I still remember the sound of their crisp, picture-perfect passes thundering ominously around the rink. Lining up for the faceoff, the mismatch was painfully apparent. I’ve always been the smallest on the ice (and earned the nickname “Nano” somewhere along the way). But this was different—Wickenheiser has six inches and 50 lb. on me. And she’s the Gretzky of the women’s game, with a shot as hard as a man’s.
Our coach, Jeff Bandura, tried to match up players in an attempt to slow the onslaught. But nothing worked. We were not unlike Slovakia—lucky to clear the zone, and put a half-dozen shots on net. We’d always stick someone on Wickenheiser, but our player was little more than a nuisance who would buzz their star all game, poking her with her stick. Wickenheiser, for the most part, took it without complaint, and rarely lost her temper; a consummate professional. She even took the blowouts seriously, needling the ref, fighting for calls, never ceding an inch, even after the score ran past 10.
The drubbing, although we knew it was coming, always stung. In the dressing room afterwards, no one ever spoke. After those games, no one went out for beers.
But once, I beat Wickenheiser clean in a faceoff, and I’ll bet each of the Slovaks carries a memory like it home from Vancouver.
There was, indeed, a beautiful moment at the end of Canada’s opener. “Go Slovakia” suddenly flashed on the Jumbotron and the Slovaks received a stirring, thunderous ovation from the 19,000 fans at Canada Hockey Place. When the team—which generally plays in front of a handful of fans, mostly friends and family—raised their sticks in thanks, the cheers grew even louder, and continued as Slovaks milled around centre ice, soaking up the moment, before slowly skating off.