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Winnipeg’s Sami Jo Small reveals highs, lows as Canadian hockey team goalie in ‘The Role I Played’

Canadian Women's hockey team goalie Sami Jo Small smiles as she lies on the ice before practice in Calgary, Wednesday March 26, 2003. CP PHOTO/Adrian Wyld

Sami Jo Small often felt conflicted about her role on the Canadian women’s hockey team.

The goaltender started 51 games for Canada over her decade on the national team.

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The ones she didn’t infuse Small’s book The Role I Played, scheduled for release Sept. 29.

Small was either on the bench as a backup or watching from the stands as the third, or alternate, goalie the first three times Canadian women played in Olympic finals.

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How much do your sweat and sacrifices count towards an Olympic gold medal if you don’t play in the gold-medal game?

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Not enough, Small felt in those moments when she was excluded from the medal ceremony.

The 44-year-old from Winnipeg had a unique vantage point — one Small didn’t appreciate at the time — to tell the story of the Canadian team in a successful era.

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Cassie Campbell-Pascall, Hayley Wickenheiser, Jayna Hefford, Jennifer Botterill, Vicky Sunohara, Geraldine Heaney, Therese Brisson and Kim St. Pierre were among teammates that led Canada to a pair of Olympic gold medals and five world championships during Small’s tenure from 1998 to 2008.

Small started for Canada in the 2000 and 1999 world championship finals and backstopped her team to titles. Of her 51 career starts, she won 40.

With the help of journals, game logs and games recorded on VHS, Small began work on the book a decade ago.

Canadian women’s hockey team goalies (left to right) Sami Jo Small, Kim St. Pierre and Charline Labonte pose after practice in Calgary, Oct.18, 2005. (CP PHOTO/Larry MacDougal).

“At the time, you don’t really realize the incredible, inspirational people you have around you and an eclectic crew of real women, which I hope is remembered in history,” Small told The Canadian Press.

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Now married to Paralympic hockey player Billy Bridges and mother to a four-year-old daughter, Small acknowledged the initial impetus for the book was to have back-of-room sales for her public-speaking gigs.

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But it became an exploration of contributions to team success. How is that valued or measured when you don’t contribute as much as you always dreamed you could?

“It was a real soul-searching endeavour for me to go through at that time in my life,” Small said.

Small sent a copy of the manuscript to St. Pierre, a Hockey Hall of Fame goalie who was chosen over Small to start big games after the turn of the century.

Team Canada goaltender Sami Jo Small clears the puck against Team Germany in second-period round-robin action at the World Women’s Ice Hockey Championship in Halifax, N.S. April 1, 2004. (CP PHOTO/Andrew Vaughan).

“I really wanted her to be OK with it,” Small said. “She’s shown as the antagonist a lot in the book.

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“The natural human instinct is to want somebody else to fail so that the team cannot go on without you. You have this constant battle as a goalie.

“You want to show the coaches you can be supportive and you can be in this role, but you don’t want to be too good in that role.”

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Like many national-team players of her era, Small grew up the only girl playing on a boys’ team.

When Small was invited to be the alternate goaltender on Canada’s first Olympic women’s team in 1998, she was a Stanford mechanical engineering student throwing javelin and discus for the track team.

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In a book peppered with childhood memories that informed her hockey career, Small also includes behind-the-scenes entertainment.

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Small’s account of a triathlon at one of Canada’s boot camps (hockey players often can’t swim or run well) captures the carnage.

When she didn’t get the starts she wanted, Small absorbed the sights and sounds of the game inside and outside the dressing room.

She was an observer with insider information.

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“It wasn’t always the role I wanted to play in those situations,” Small said.

“When I look back at it 20 years later, I don’t know that I would have gone on this career trajectory had I not had that story to tell.”

The Role I Played published by ECW Press is available Sept. 29 for a list price of $32.95.

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