Geraldine Heaney still firing away
Geraldine Heaney does not particularly care whom she offends on the subject. So when asked, and even when she is not, one of hockey's newest Hall of Fame selections speaks up when she sees girls playing on boys' teams near her Toronto-area home.
"I think that's just parents thinking their girl is better than everyone else, that girls' hockey is not good enough, and that's just not the case. But some parents need to be educated," said Heaney, who will become the third woman to receive one of the game's highest honors when she is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.
"It's great to see how many girls are playing, but not parents who think their boys are all going to the NHL and their girls all going to the Olympics. I just shake my head because they don't get it and I'm very honest. They don't like what I have to say but I tell them, 'You're kidding yourselves.' "
Heaney, 46, is certainly in a position to speak. She knows the odds against reaching the game's highest pinnacles. And she remembers well when girls were lucky to play at all.
Just a year old when her parents emigrated with her and her two siblings from Ireland to Canada, Heaney said it did not take long for her family to discover what interested people most in their new country.
"My dad got there six months earlier to get a job and get things organized for us, and he learned that what everybody did on Saturday nights was watch 'Hockey Night in Canada,'" she said. "My parents didn't know what ice hockey was."
Heaney soon followed her brothers onto the street to play the game, but at the rink she met resistance.
"I didn't know any better, so I'd watch my brothers and ask, 'Why can't I play?' " she recalled. "But I was told, 'Girls don't play hockey.' "
When she went on school trips to the rink, the other kids would look at Heaney's hand-me-downs and laugh.
"They'd say, 'Look, she has boy skates on,' " she said. "But I just ignored all that. They were hockey skates."
One of the first organized teams on which Heaney played were with girls four and five years older, their games and practices held 45 minutes from her family's home. But it obviously suited her well, as she would play more than 1,000 games for the Toronto Aeros over the next 18 seasons, ending with the team retiring her jersey.
"We won a lot," she said. "But the thing I enjoyed the most was practice. I just loved to play. And I always tell my kids who have a heck of a lot more ice time, that that's a dream."
A decade after she retired, Heaney is still a celebrity in hockey circles because of her illustrious career and because of what is still referred to in the women's game simply as "The Goal." Still replayed on television in Canada every time women's hockey is featured, it is Heaney's signature and a large part of her identity -- the gold medal-clinching goal in the inaugural women's world championships against the United States in 1990.
As a defenseman, Heaney rushed the net, maneuvering around two defenders before scoring while simultaneously tripping over the goaltender and sailing through the air. The image drew instant comparisons to Bobby Orr's Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1970. Coupled with the fact that, like Orr had been, she was the best player in the game at the time as an offensive defenseman, it bestowed on Heaney the unofficial title of "The Bobby Orr of the women's game."
"It's funny, but I had seen that shot probably 10 times before that. It wasn't new to us," said Angela James, who, with American Cammi Granato, became the first women to enter the Hall of Fame, in 2010. "I had been on the receiving end and the giving end of those for 15 years.
"Having the ability to go up and be a force offensively, but still able to get back and make the big defensive play, that was typical of Geri night in and night out. She was a tremendous contributor to every team she was on ... and just a tremendous athlete away from the rink."
I just loved to play and enjoyed it, and everything fell into place. What I think they miss out on today is they don't just go out and play. It's all structured now and one thing older players still have over players today is the natural ability to just play the game.Geraldine Heaney
A bigger fan of longtime Boston Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, as she was a bit too young to fully appreciate Orr's playing career, Heaney did get to meet and speak to Orr on several occasions.
"When I got married, I sent him copies of "The Goal" picture and he actually personalized them for everyone in my wedding party and I framed them all up," she said.
"The Goal" sealed the first of seven straight world championships for Heaney and Canada, a distinction that led to her induction into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame with James and Granato in 2008.
But a silver medal in the 1998 Olympics, the first year for women's hockey in the Winter Games, was not what Canada or Heaney had in mind, as they lost to an upstart U.S. team in the gold-medal game.
At 34, Heaney came back in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics despite a serious knee injury the summer before, and this time Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2 in the final.
"If we had won the gold medal in '98, I don't know, maybe my decision to continue to play would have changed," Heaney said. "But I knew this was my last year and to end up with the gold medal ... I had already won seven world championships, national championships, but that was the one that was missing. To end that way, I couldn't have asked for anything better."
James called the popularity of girls' and women's hockey today "a huge trickle-down effect" from the influence of players like Heaney.
"For little girls now to see other little girls playing and be able to go to their mommies and daddies and say, 'I want to play because Elizabeth is playing,' and not because Johnny and Joey are playing, it's a domino effect," James said. "And that's due to the trailblazers like Geri."
Heaney said she is grateful she did not feel the pressure that young hockey players are under today to play and perform, citing her 9-year-old daughter Shannon's five to six practices a week in her fourth year of organized hockey.
"I just loved to play and enjoyed it, and everything fell into place," said Heaney, who coaches Shannon's novice team. "What I think they miss out on today is they don't just go out and play. It's all structured now and one thing older players still have over players today is the natural ability to just play the game. It's handed to them now. You don't see kids on the street, where I learned the game, or on outdoor rinks anymore."
Heaney said she does her best to remind her players to appreciate what they have.
"I tell them, 'No standing around,' because I know how expensive ice [time] is," she said. "I say, 'Girls, listen, your parents are paying a lot of money for this.' I know the sacrifices my parents made for me and their parents may have the money to do it, but they don't get it. I tell them how hard they need to work and why, when they get frustrated, to just work harder. That was one thing I always did. No one's going to give you anything."