Canada's Haley Irwin will play key role in pursuit of Olympic gold
Veteran forward missed almost 2 full seasons due to injuries
WESLEY CHAPEL, Fla. — Haley Irwin tells it as she sees it.
Asked if she is happy with her progress in her courageous comeback from missing the better part of two full seasons, the veteran centre shook her head and quietly said, "The honest answer is no, I'm not where I want to be. I'm close and I'm starting to feel better with each passing game. I just have to trust that it will come back."
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If Canada hopes to beat a very strong team from the United States and win a third consecutive gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, it will need veterans such as Irwin to be at their very best. That was evident Wednesday night when Team USA doubled Team Canada 4-2 at the Four Nations Cup.
Cayla Barnes, Megan Bozek, Alex Carpenter and Kendall Coyne scored for the United States. Meghan Agosta and Rebecca Johnston replied for Canada.
Team USA is 2-0 while Canada is 1-1 and plays Finland Friday afternoon.
'It just wasn't there'
Irwin has dealt with numerous injuries in her quest to continue an otherwise decorated career. She suffered her first concussion just prior to the Sochi Olympics while playing against a boys' midget AAA team in Calgary.
"In one of our last midget series games I got hit from behind awkwardly," Irwin said. "The guy who hit me felt terrible. He helped me get up and I was able to skate off the ice fine, but he felt so bad in that moment. It was a fluke play. It was unfortunate."
Consequently, Irwin was limited to just two games in Sochi, but managed to pick up an assist.
"I tried to come back earlier and it just wasn't there," Irwin said. "There is a timeline we have to deal with and at that point and there were discussions on whether or not I'd be able to play a game. If I couldn't, they needed to bring in an alternate. It was crushing and there's not much you can do. If I'm not 100 per cent, it's not fair to the rest of the team."
The decision was to place her on the roster in hopes she could get into the Games.
Irwin believes she could have played in Canada's third game, but team officials wanted to be sure she was 100 per cent healthy so they held her out until the semifinal. Irwin played that game and in the gold medal game.
"One extra game off meant a couple of days and a couple of days in that kind of a recovery can truly make a difference," Irwin said.
In 2010 in Vancouver — when she was healthy — the hard-working power forward scored four goals and five points in five games.
Irwin, who has helped Canada win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, suffered another concussion in January 2015 while playing for the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women's Hockey League. That injury sidelined her for nine months. When she was close to returning, a nagging hip injury required surgery. In total, Irwin missed close to two years of hockey.
"After Sochi, I come home and I am feeling healthy," Irwin said. "I was having a good first half with the Inferno and then I suffered a concussion. I have never hit my head so hard and it put me out for nine months."
Irwin said she could have soldiered on and dealt with her hip issue after the season. But following discussions with the folks that run Hockey Canada, it was in everybody's best interest, especially hers, that she got healthy from head-to-toe.
Serious injuries take a toll on the mind, Irwin said.
"When you first come back you do play differently," Irwin admitted. "You are timid and probably not as comfortable with certain things you were before, but as time passes you get more comfortable and start to play your game."
The 29-year-old native of Thunder Bay, Ont., said there is a tender balance between concentrating on getting back to prime form and lending a hand as a two-time Olympian with Canada's younger players.
"It is important to help the younger players coming in and to take them under our wings because I remember that happening for me," Irwin said. "We want the younger players to succeed and to feel a part of things right away."
There is no question Irwin is an important player in Canada's quest to complete an Olympic hat trick of gold medals. Team Canada coach Laura Schuler knows that better than anyone.
"She's still in the process of coming back," Schuler said. "Obviously she has only played a couple of games for us so far and I think it's just a matter of getting her legs under her; getting back into that hockey shape she needs to get to."