Gold-Smith: McGill coach discusses Canada’s journey to the top

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Fresh off helping Team Canada find its way to the top of the Olympic podium as an assistant coach with the national women’s hockey team, Martlet Head Coach Peter Smith took some time to talk to Tribune opinion editor Matt Chesser about all things hockey-related.

Q: What was the atmosphere like in Vancouver? You’ve been to other Olympic games, but how did Vancouver compare to those in terms of the feeling in the city?A: It was terrific. Your perspective changes, since you’re a Canadian and you’re in a Canadian city. [But taking] myself out of that perspective – and from the comments that I’ve heard from others – I think that it was absolutely amazing what the people of Vancouver have done. The atmosphere in the downtown area every night was incredible; people were out, having a lot of fun, lots of music, lots of dancing, it was really great. The volunteers, and everyone else, were terrific.

Q: You’ve heard Jacques Rogge’s comments about the need for improvement in international women’s hockey if it’s going to continue to be a part of the Olympics. What was your response upon hearing that? A: I would agree. Women’s hockey has to improve. There are a number of other countries that need to put more time and money and effort into the development of their women’s hockey teams. And hopefully that will happen. The hockey, across the board, has improved; every country has gotten better. The problem is that Canada and the US keep getting better as well.

Q: Does it worry you at all that people have drawn a comparison between women’s hockey and women’s softball, which recently had its Olympics status removed? Are you worried about the future of women’s hockey?A: First of all, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying. There is some concern there, though. I’m going to continue to do whatever I can to develop women’s hockey in this country, and if there are things that I can do elsewhere, then I’ll do that as well. The future of women’s hockey is very bright, both here in Canada and across the world. But I think patience is required. It took a long time for the men’s program to develop; Canada was beating everyone by big scores 60 years ago, and now the rest of the world has caught up. The tournament here for the men was very competitive, and I think that’s the future for women’s hockey, but it’s going to require some patience.

Q: The other controversy surrounding the Canadian women’s hockey team was the celebration [drinking and smoking cigars on the ice after the general public had left the arena] that took place after the gold medal game. What was your response to that? A: It was regrettable. It’s too bad that it happened. The girls had won a pretty big game after a pretty big year. And in those situations, whether you win or whether you lose, you’re not always making rational decisions, you’re running on emotions – the players made some decisions that they regret and certainly regret that they’ve ended up in the media. I think it was blown a little bit out of proportion. It was an unfortunate situation; it made people feel bad for a couple of days here. It was regrettable and it won’t happen again.

Q: Being on home soil, did the Canadian team feel a lot more pressure to win gold? And if so, do you think that affected the team in any way?A: I’m not sure there was any more pressure. Every time this team goes out there’s a certain amount of pressure to win. Potentially there were a few more distractions, because here in Canada we have a lot more friends and family. All those people are here to support you, which on one hand is great, but on the other hand, you’ve got to make sure they [have] tickets, and [that] they’re well taken care of. There’s a balance there. Maybe we were under the microscope a bit more, but I think hockey, wherever you play, is such a big deal in Canada, which is great.

Q: You’ve been working with this team for quite some time. What impressed you most about the way they performed at the Olympics? A: All year long, we preached the idea of teamwork and of playing an up-tempo game. And they worked so hard all year long during training in Calgary, they’re tired just about the whole year. They managed to bring great energy every game though. We also had real good leadership from our veteran players.Q: I especially wanted to talk to you about the performance of McGill graduate Catherine Ward. I personally thought she was fantastic – she was out there in almost every situation, whether it was killing penalties or on the power-play. Were you surprised by how well she seemed to perform on such a big stage? A: Not at all. Catherine is a very resilient player, she’s mentally tough, and she worked hard all year on improving her skill-level. So no, it didn’t surprise me in the least. Catherine is a money player, she plays her best in the big games. And these games were no different.Q: Was there a sense of personal pride in seeing how she has developed over the last few years?A: Yes, I’m proud of all the players here. And obviously for Catherine and Kim [St-Pierre] and Charline [Labonté ] – there’s more pride because I know them so well, and I had that wonderful opportunity to coach them at McGill.

Q: Obviously St-Pierre [a McGill graduate] and Labonté [a McGill student on leave for the Olympics] didn’t get to play quite as much as they would have liked. Do you think that was difficult for them, both having been through this before, and both having won gold medals before?A: I’ll guarantee it was difficult. The players want to play, and when they don’t get a chance to play, it’s disappointing. They were great teammates, they were real professionals from start to finish. They were a big part of the success of this team – you can’t diminish their importance to this team, and how hard they worked. We have three great goaltenders, and we’re really blessed to have [them].

Q: When you look back on this entire experience, what stands out to you the most? A: I say this a lot in coaching, and in general, you reap what you sow. Our team worked so hard to get to where it was. I think when we ended up winning that gold medal, it wasn’t a huge surprise, because of the amount of time we had put into it. The hard work pays off. There was a lot of satisfaction from that: working hard and getting the result that you wanted. Another thing – winning gold here in Canada was pretty special. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime deal, and to be a small part of that was exciting.

Q: What does the future hold for you? Are you coming back to McGill? Have you thought about your future with the national program? A: I’ll be back to McGill on May 1. And I’m looking forward to that. I really missed McGill, I missed the Martlets, they’re doing great – I’m so happy and proud of them. I’ll be glad to get back … In terms of the national program right now, I don’t have any plans. For me the future is at McGill.