Haley Irwin officially announced her retirement from Canada’s National Women’s Team on June 3, but the two-time Olympic gold medallist is far from done with Hockey Canada.
In early July, Irwin joined long-time teammate Jocelyne Larocque to participate in the annual Hockey Canada Skills Coach Seminar, where individuals earn certification as skills coaches with the national organization.
In a typical year, the majority of the seminar – held at Hockey Canada headquarters in Calgary – takes place on the ice. But 2020 has been far from typical, and the COVID-19 pandemic forced the seminar online for the first time.
There were 15 90-minute sessions – topics included building a skills plan, skating, puck control, developing defencemen and scoring details – and a pair of hot stoves over five days.
“I know they had to work really hard to make it interactive and interesting via Zoom, but they did a great job,” Larocque says. “You still got to hear the presenters, you got to see the PowerPoints. It was great to hear from different presenters because everyone has their little take on skating, shooting and stickhandling. I definitely got a lot of tips.”
Although she remains active on the Team Canada blue-line, Larocque has started to diversify her interests, most recently opening Stoke Strength and Conditioning in Hamilton, Ont., where she serves as coach and hockey coordinator.
Irwin, whose last on-ice appearance came in the 2018 Olympic gold medal game, is entering her second year as an assistant coach with the women’s hockey team at Ryerson University, and returned to the national program last summer as a guest coach at Canada’s National Women’s Under-18 Team selection camp.
For both players, who also either run or assist at various hockey camps through the year, earning skills coach certification is just another way they can stay connected to the game that has given them so much.
“My interest [in coaching] just comes from still being passionate about hockey and looking for ways to understand what coaches are doing,” Irwin says. “[I like to know] what's available, and the skill side of it has always intrigued me. It challenges me in a different way.”
“I feel lucky that I can do this while I'm playing,” adds Larocque. “It can be challenging to fit everything in, but I love it and it's something that I want to continue even once I'm done playing.”
For the Ste-Anne, Man., native, a veteran of 126 games, two Olympics and seven world championships with the national program, the added bonus is being able to add to her repertoire while she remains active.
“When you break it down, it makes so much more sense,” she says. “I find, especially being a defenceman, when I'm talking to forwards about different things, like how they should shoot or puck protection around the D, it makes me think and I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, that is actually hard for them to do,’ so I can use that to my advantage. You definitely learn more about the game when you're breaking it down and teaching it to others.”
Irwin and Larocque both know the feeling of representing their country, of playing under the game’s brightest lights and of winning the biggest prizes in women’s hockey.
And while those feelings are uniquely special, there’s something altogether different about helping shape the direction of the game and directly influence the players who are its future.
“When you see a player evolve or maybe they start to understand something because you've been working with them, it's an amazing feeling as a coach,” Irwin says. “I learned a lot from my coaches, whether it be hockey specific or life. And I just want to give that back to that next generation.”