She’s back. Finally.
When Haley Irwin stepped onto the ice Tuesday for the first practices at Canada’s National Women’s Team Fall Festival, it marked the first time in more
than 22 months – 674 days, to be exact – she was an on-ice participant with Team Canada.
It has been a frustrating road back to the national team for the two-time Olympic gold medallist, who has missed almost two years with a pair of long-term
“I’ve been through senior camps before,” Irwin said after making her return, “but stepping on that ice for the first time was a huge sigh of relief. It’s
like ‘Finally the moment is here.’”
After helping Canada to a gold medal at the 2014 4 Nations Cup in Kamloops, B.C., Irwin rejoined the Calgary Inferno for the remainder of the Canadian
Women’s Hockey League season.
On Jan. 17, 2015, the Inferno faced off with the Toronto Furies, in what stands as Irwin’s most recent game.
“Just an unlucky play, really,” she says of the first injury. “I kind of got tangled up with a girl and went into the boards. I got up and thought nothing
of it (she finished the game and had a goal and an assist in a 4-2 Calgary win). It was more the next day that I realized that I was more injured than I
The Thunder Bay, Ont., native wouldn’t play again as the Inferno reached the Clarkson Cup semifinals, but had her sights set on wearing red and white at
the 2015 IIHF Women’s World Championship.
“I actually did try to make a comeback for that world championship, but the second I started skating … after a month-and-a-half you think you’re in a
decent spot, and [then] I stepped on the ice,” Irwin says.
“I can tell you that the phone call I made to [Team Canada general manager] Mel [Davidson] right after that was one of the hardest I’ve had to make, to
admit that I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t OK.”
Irwin watched from the other side of the Atlantic as Canada settled for silver in Malmö, Sweden, losing 7-5 to the United States in the final. It marked
the first time since 2008 that she had missed women’s worlds.
But there was an end in sight, a light at the end of the tunnel. A summer of rehab had Irwin on track to rejoin Team Canada and the Inferno for the 2015-16
“It started off as a nagging injury,” she says of the second ailment. “I knew for a little bit that something just wasn’t right no matter what I was doing,
and so while I was injured, it was ‘Let’s try and figure it out a little more; we have the time, why not focus a little bit on it?’
This time surgery was necessary to fix the problem, meaning another lost season.
For Irwin, the most frustrating part was had the seriousness of the second injury had been discovered during rehab of the first, she could have killed two
birds with one stone, rehabbed both at the same time, and been ready to return a year ago.
“Looking back, it seems like I could have got a lot done had we known,” she says. “You get the news, and go ‘Well, nine months ago we could have had this
taken care of.’ It hurts a lot, but I didn’t want to come back and then go out again with another injury. I just decided, let’s get healthy from head to
toe, let’s become a great athlete again, and take baby steps along the process.”
The biggest disappointment, though, was that missing the season meant missing the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Kamloops, and missing the chance
to play in front of Canadian fans.
It made for a tough, yet easy decision for Irwin to make.
“I just kept saying ‘But worlds are in Canada, worlds are in Canada.’ Any time you have a chance to play in your home country, in front of your home crowd,
there’s something so special about that, [but I knew] I had to make the decision that was going to be best for me for the long run.
“That’s not the easiest decision, and it sure wasn’t knowing we were going to be playing in front of an awesome crowd in Kamloops. But looking back it was
the right decision; a hard one, but one I had to make in order to say that I did everything right that I could to get back.”
So with her teammates in Canada’s Tournament Capital going for gold, Irwin was left to watch from her couch in Calgary, which, as it turns out, is even
harder than being on the ice and playing for a world title.
“I was more nervous watching than for any game I’ve ever played in.”
Just the gold medal game?
“All of them! You’re sitting there, and you know everyone out there, and so you know what they’re going through and how they’re feeling, and their
emotions, and what they want to do, and how they want to perform, so I’m literally sitting at the edge of my seat screaming at the TV for every game.
“And that gold medal game was … I now know what parents go through. It was exciting, and I’m very proud; watching that game I was very proud of them, very
proud to be Canadian and be a part of the program.”
With rehab in the rear-view mirror, this week gives Irwin an opportunity to look back on the last two years, to think about not only the journey, but those
who helped on the way back to Team Canada.
She had the opportunity to be in the gym on a daily basis with more than a few Inferno and Team Canada teammates, players who shared her long-term goals,
even if Irwin’s short-term goals were much different.
“[Being in the gym was] harder some days because you want to be there; you want to be going through exactly what they’re going through, and it’s tough to
watch others do what you want [to be doing], but easier because they were instrumental in my rehab and comeback, and their support meant the world to me.
“When you’re able to surround yourself with good people and positive people, people that know what it’s like to go through an injury, and who have been
through ups and downs, it makes the process a little bit easier, and makes showing up at the gym just to do rehab a little bit easier.”
Finally healthy and finally “fully engaged,” Irwin is turning her attention out of the gym and onto the ice, towards this week, this season, a fifth
women’s worlds next spring, and possibly a third Olympic Games in PyeongChang in 2018.
And while she learned long ago not to take anything for granted, and not to look too far ahead, it has never hit home more.
“You never think while you’re playing that you could appreciate it or understand it any more than you do, but you do when it’s taken away,” Irwin says. “So
being out and not being able to put on that jersey, you have a whole new way of thinking.
“And so you never know when it’s going to be your last chance; it’s an absolute honour every single time, and you wear [the jersey] with a lot of respect
and pride, and there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into it before my time, and I want to make sure I’m carrying that tradition on.”