Men’s hockey gets the majority of attention in this country, but it’s our national women’s team that is one of the most successful organizations in all of sports history. Since 1990, Team Canada has won 10 gold medals at the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship and four golds at the Olympics. A new memoir by veteran goaltender Sami Jo Small gives readers an exclusive look at what went into creating these consistent, if overlooked, champions, and what it takes to be a part of that kind of enduring legacy.
In The Role I Played, Small meticulously relays everything from her Winnipeg childhood as a burgeoning hockey fan to her fledgling days as a struggling rookie, not entirely sure if hockey is the right path for her, to ultimately seeing that gold medal hung around her neck. Playing since the age of five, and known locally as “that girl that plays hockey,” Small joined the Canadian national team as a goaltender in 1997 while attending Stanford University on a track scholarship. She then went on to become a three-time Olympian, a five-time World Champion, and the recipient of multiple awards and honours.
Hockey fanatics will enjoy Small’s detailed depictions of prestigious world-class competition and her team’s skilful on-ice energy. They’ll revel in the behind-the-scenes access to her journey as an athlete: nine-year-old Small as the only girl in a room full of would-be goalies, trying on equipment for the first time at her local community centre in Manitoba. The storied player takes readers inside the buzzing environment of a championship dressing room and peppers the book with scintillating details of hockey rivalry and trash talk – calling out a certain U.S. women’s Olympic team for using the Canadian flag as a doormat, for example.
But this memoir isn’t all hockey nostalgia and glory. Small is surprisingly candid about her own personal disappointments and gutting team losses. She writes transparently about feeling “lifeless, shocked, embarrassed,” and openly reveals anger, jealousy, and even pettiness. While Small celebrates the inspiring loyalty and camaraderie that go along with belonging to a championship team, she’s not afraid to detail the gruelling physical and emotional sacrifices, and the demoralizing time spent on the bench.
When recalling the team’s decision not to put her in net for a 2002 Olympic gold medal game, she writes, “It’s gold medal day. But not my gold medal day.” The strength of The Role I Played lies in the fact that Small is not afraid to be truthful about the uglier feelings that accompany a life devoted to sport: what it feels like to have to constantly prove yourself, to not be chosen despite all the hard work, or to have to cheer from the sidelines after being unceremoniously demoted to third string. (A third-string goalie on the women’s Olympic team does not receive a medal, even though her counterpart in the men’s tournament does.)
“If there was a lesson to be learned in all the hardship, I haven’t learned it. I just hurt,” she recalls of the experience of watching her teammates live out her dream of Olympic gold without her. “Grief is complicated. I resent that medal. I want that medal. I’m jealous of that medal.”
Beyond Small’s admirable honesty about the darker moments, she also offers valuable first-person insight into how elite athletes – especially women – weather the severe economic, emotional, and physical demands of pursuing their dreams. She writes about the strain a deep commitment to the game can have on personal relationships (“sport can be so selfish sometimes”) and how the dream of victory can become all-consuming, until it ultimately – and sometimes painfully – ends.
Despite this book’s admirable thoroughness, it would benefit from a paring down of its more superfluous details, along with a strategic cut to its overwhelming cast of women’s hockey characters. Bouncing back and forth through time, the narrative largely relies on headings for structure, but it can feel convoluted or meandering. That said, hockey devotees will appreciate the meticulous research, while more casual fans will relish in the rapid game-time action that Small has carefully reconstructed.
As Small writes, women’s hockey is bigger than ever, with participation soaring, all of which makes the need to examine our country’s support for women’s sport more vital than ever. The Role I Played is a bold and deeply personal testament to the game’s importance, giving fans the good, the bad, and the ugly of competition, while also providing a thorough document of women’s hockey in this country. But more than anything, it highlights the intense emotion, uncertainty, and self-sacrifice inherent to a life of athletic pursuit.