By Graham Neysmith, CIS Women’s Hockey Correspondent
The bench of the University of Toronto Varsity Blues is furious. Their opponents have just taken a one-goal lead in a tight exhibition game on a controversial goal.
The official claims an opposing player deflected the puck into the zone. The Varsity Blues bench is adamant that icing should have been called, and the coaches are intent on letting the officiating crew know it.
“I still have the competitive athlete mindset,” admits assistant coach Jayna Hefford, with a grin.
It is a formality that Hefford and the Varsity Blues will lose this argument, but Jayna Hefford does not lose often. Her resume includes four gold medals in five trips to the Olympics, plus seven World Championships, as well as other titles with the Canadian national team and at the professional level. When she retired following the 2014 Olympics, Hefford was behind only Hayley Wickenheiser in all-time games played, goals and points by a player wearing the maple leaf.
Although she hung up her skates two years ago, Hefford never really stepped away from the game. She had been a part-time coach with the Varsity Blues since 2011, and became a full-time assistant this past August.
This year will mark 20 years since Hefford first started with the program. She played a lone season with the Varsity Blues in 1996-97, before taking a leave of absence to play at the 1998 Olympics. Since the mid-90’s, women’s hockey around the world and in CIS has grown by leaps and bounds. Hefford represents an era before there were even national championships for the sport.
A sign of the times, during her lone year at the university level, the Kingston, Ont. native played with a team outside of the university ranks – something that wouldn’t be possible for a player today.
“Certainly it’s a huge commitment for the student-athlete to be a part of the program,” says Hefford, who earned a B.P.H.E. in Physical Education and Health from the University of Toronto. “It’s just how intense it is, how busy the schedule is and also the depth of the league.”
The increase in time and resources dedicated to the sport has resulted in better hockey being played across the country, especially in the OUA.
“The depth of the teams is different from when I played – maybe there were a few lines on each team that were strong. People are starting to realize the quality of the programs that are around.
“The great thing about the OUA is that it’s very competitive. Everyone was beating everyone throughout the season – it didn’t matter if you were a first place team or an eighth place team – and that makes for fun hockey.”
Apart from the good hockey on the ice, another aspect of the job that is enjoyable for the seven-time world champion is being around the players. Getting to work with model students who share a similar drive and passion for hockey has been a pleasure for the coach.
“The girls on our team are so passionate, but also just really intelligent young women,” says the 39-year-old. “They have fun with the game and they love the game, but also have big dreams in terms of academics.”
Having been with the national team for 17 years, Hefford has had the opportunity to play under a number of great coaches. She credits former bench bosses Karen Hughes, Melody Davidson and Dan Church as being the most influential, but getting to work with life-long friend Vicky Sunohara at U of T has been by far the best experience.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot looking at Vicky and the way she’s grown as a coach,” says Hefford. “There are a lot of times that I’m really impressed with the things she says and the decisions she makes.”
The Varsity Blues employ an all-female staff consisting of Sunohara, Hefford and assistant Safiya Muharuma. In September 2016, the Concordia Stingers named their coaching staff which includes former Olympians Julie Chu, Caroline Ouellette and Lauriane Rougeau, who have a total of nine Olympic medals between them.
However, all-female staffs in CIS remain a rarity. Hefford does not see this as a problem, stating that as a player, she wanted the best coach she could get, regardless of gender. However, Hefford admits it is nice seeing former teammates and competitors stepping behind the bench.
“It’s really great to get more and more girls who have put so much into the women’s game to come back be leaders,” she says.
The Varsity Blues will eventually lose their game, the goal in question serving as the game winner. But as mentioned, Jayna Hefford does not lose much and as long as she is behind the bench and around the game, Hefford is winning.
“I love being in an environment where I can have that competitiveness, Hefford says. “Sometimes when you retire from a sport, you don’t have that anymore. It’s great to still have that avenue in my life.”