Since hosting the Esso Cup as a member of the St. Albert Slash two seasons ago, forward Karly Heffernan has had to “embrace the climb” in order to make her hockey dreams come true.
As with any major mountain worth climbing, there are many steps to take and stumbles to make along the way, but that’s the only way a climber can reach a peak, and fully enjoy the view from the top.
Or in 17-year-old Heffernan’s case this past January, score the game-winning goal just 58 seconds into overtime to give Canada a 2-1 victory over the United States – and the gold medal at the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship.
“I dumped it into the corner and Bunts (Hanna Bunton) picked it up and went around the net to the hash mark and turned around, and then swatted it in front for me, and I just chipped it in the net,” the Sherwood Park, Alta., native said of the goal that earned Canada its second straight U18 world title.
“It was a complete blur; it was crazy after that … I just remember seeing (Catherine Dubois) coming full throttle at me … and then getting tackled,” Heffernan said, chuckling at the memory of the strong forward being the first to reach her for a bear hug, followed quickly by her other ecstatic teammates, who piled on top of her in an unforgettable on-ice celebration. “It was just the best moment of my entire life.”
But reaching that surreal pinnacle moment in Heffernan’s hockey career certainly didn’t come easily. It has been a journey, and one of the stops along the way was having the chance to compete in the Esso Cup, Canada’s National Female Midget Championship, at just 15 years old.
“Esso Cup got me a lot more exposure than any other tournament at that point, and I think that it really forced me as a person to be ‘on’ every game,” Heffernan said of how the national championship helped her develop into the type of player that can handle world championship pressure – and even score the heroic game-winning goal.
“There are obviously the top players in Canada at that tournament, so you have to be just as much defensive as offensive, (and) stay disciplined … I think I’ve grown both sides of my game,” she said. “I have proven how I want to play.”
Since welcoming the top the five top teams from across the country to St. Albert, Heffernan hasn’t just won a world championship with Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team. She also played in a three-game series against the United States’ under-18 team last summer, has played for Alberta in back-to-back National Women’s Under-18 Championships, and represented Canada at the IIHF High Performance Camp in Vierumäki, Finland, in July 2012 to share her skills with young players from other countries and help grow the female game globally.
Now, Heffernan plays on the girls prep team at the Edge School for Athletes in Calgary, alongside fellow world championship gold medallist Eden Murray. Together, the two also led the Edge School to a gold medal at the first-ever 2013 World Sport School Challenge, held in Winnipeg in February.
“She is very hard working, and she’s really supportive of her teammates,” Murray said of one of her best friends, both on and off the ice. “She’s always been a difference-maker in the games.”
Murray said she was “happy and proud” of Heffernan notching that incredible extra-time winner. “It’s amazing that we went all the way from playing at the Edge to worlds, and then she scores the OT winner.”
“It was just like ‘Wow, she’s on my team!’ ” the Medicine Hat, Alta., forward said of the golden moment. “She’s working on the little things that are important, not just the big things … like back-checking, stops and starts, those (are the) types of things she’s really improved on, and it’s really awesome to see.”
Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team head coach Jim Fetter agreed Heffernan has quickly become “a more complete player.”
“She’s a very skilled player,” he said. “She has a good sense for the game, (and) I think she brings good physical size and uses it to her advantage.”
Fetter said national events such as the Esso Cup are extremely important in preparing players such as Heffernan to make that next leap, including into Canada’s National Women’s Program.
“They’re playing against their best competition in Canada, so they have to step up their game,” he said. “Every shift (they) have to go out and showcase what skills that they have.”
Fetter said it’s always rewarding to see a player such as Heffernan put in the work and take the steps necessary to move from playing for a team such as the St. Albert Slash, to scoring the golden game-winner for Team Canada.
“That’s what we want; that’s why we coach,” he said. “We all like winning … but I think it’s also watching them develop, and seeing them grow and mature not only as players, but as human beings.”
With Fetter behind the bench and Murray on the ice with her, Heffernan helped Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team embrace this season’s motto of “Embrace the Climb” – straight to the top of the world.
Now, with one world championship gold medal hanging on her wall, along with her Team Canada jersey, of course, Heffernan is focusing on the next steps in her journey on and up in her women’s hockey career.
“It really represents all the hard work I’ve put in, and being able to represent my country is a dream come true,” Heffernan said of her golden goal. “I want to play on the Olympic team one day, but I’m just taking it one step at a time.”