“When I step on the ice I am free” says Sarah Vaillancourt who has been playing on Team Canada since 2004. She has a reputation for playing with imagination and daring. WINIH’s interview gives her fans some idea of why she has excelled and is now one of the offensive leaders on the Canadian squad. March 2011.
Elizabeth Etue: Give me an update on the post-Olympic year…some highlights.
Sarah Vaillancourt: I think it was a combination of final result (the gold medal) but it meant everything because of what we went through to have that result. A lot of people don’t realize here where we were coming from. The US had won the previous world championship…and we arrived at training camp trying to form chemistry but at the same time all competing vs. each other which is really hard. We always find a way to build that chemistry. Even last year…I have been on the team since 2004 I can say it was the tightest team I have even been on which is really hard because it is a team of very talented players that are either assistant captains or captains on their own team.
Being together started with the first camp we had in Dawson Creek. It is a month long; really a boot camp with off ice training mostly. In 2009 it ran from mid-May to mid-June. Intense. It was intended to build our physical shape but mostly it was about mental toughness at end of day. And to build our team chemistry and I think it worked really well and from that point on we knew we could go through anything because we had done it at that camp. It was a crazy schedule through the fall of 2009 playing with against the boys; about 57 games. There was a bunch of injuries so usually those players are sitting in stands but at that time most played all the games. We just kept going through every scenario and coming back as a team. Coming back from 3 goals; tying and winning in overtime; we were ready for anything.
EE: what were the specific highlights after the Olympics?
SV: When we were still in Vancouver; it was something else. Right after winning; people recognized us everywhere and were congratulating us; it was a big thing for wms hockey. When we came back to our different cities, we were still being recognized. Half team went to Cuba together and people were recognizing us at the beach and at the resort. You don’t understand how proud they were. It follows you everywhere; it was something else; for us we wanted peace…but it was pretty great at same time.
In Montreal, there was some media attention, not for too long. Now in my town, Sherbrooke people recognize me at the rink but not on the street; it is not that big of a change.
EE: What kind of training are you doing now?
SV: In non-Olympic year, after it was so crazy last year. We were on the ice for two hours then at the gym 1-2 hours and then playing 4 games a week. This year I am coming back from a surgery. I am taking it easy. I had tears in my abdominal muscles so I was only able to play half the season. I started to play the last weekend of Jan with my Montreal club team. That was my first game.
They found second tear in my abdomen; sowed one and then goretexed around the other. I have a nice little scar. It went well so I am lucky. I have to get another surgery. My body is pretty banged up but I guess that is what happens when you start training really young but I wouldn’t change anything.
My hip has a labrum tear; it is a thin layer (ring of cartilage) around the bone.
After the world championship I want to get it done. It is hard to get those surgeries…not common. The recovery is 4-5 months so it is a big surgery.
EE: what is your normal practice routine?
VH: Normally I train every day with personal trainer. I do lifting and work on agility about 2 hours a day. I also do 1-2 hours on ice by myself trying to get back in shape. You have to be hockey shape. It is hardest sport to stay in shape if you don’t practice actual sport. There is nothing that compares to it.
Mental Training: Searching for the perfect balance.
EE: What about mental training?
SV: I think mental is a very personal thing. When the athlete finds the perfect mental training balance that is when they perform at their best. When I was younger, when I was 12 my dream was to be on the national team and there was not one night that I didn’t visualize wearing the Team Canada jersey, standing on blue line for national anthem because I thought that was super cool. Visualizing and believing. Ask anyone family and friends from 12 years old. All I could talk about was TC. I knew the entire team roster by heart; where they were from. I think it starts there believing and seeing yourself. There was no question I was going to be there. It starts from when you are really young and then was growing up playing.
I used to visualize so much before my game; I would be in my hockey equipment and visualize about what I had to do on the ice; I was so intense about it. I realized over the years that every time I did that those were the games I played the worst. The best were games where I just went into it and talked to myself and said I know what I have to do. For me, that is what works best. I realized that in college.
I didn’t feel like playing sometimes. When I relaxed and just played I performed the best. What I do now is throughout the week I think about the team we are playing and when I am on ice practicing. I am really focused about what I have to do and the other teams. For games, I enjoy my teammates. Talk to everyone about anything and everything. Enjoy the moment, have fun but once I step on the ice I know what I have to do. Everyone is so different.
EE: It sounds like you trust your brain and body.
SV: Yes. I have been skating since I was 2 ½ years old and playing hockey since then too. I am most comfortable doing the thing is most natural to me so I know when I step on the ice I am free.
EE: Describe yourself as a player.
SV: I would rather hear people talk about me since I am very hard on myself. I describe myself as intense; everyone says it. Very energetic, intense, sometimes too intense because I take it to another level and then I have to calm myself down and say, “Ok relax this is just a game.”
Power forward but more a huge playmaker but I can finish it. I think of myself as a complete player. I can shoot the puck really well; pass it when people think I am going to shoot it. I have a great vision of ice. Everyone says they don’t’ understand how much poise and patience I have with the puck. I know what I am doing in my head but everyone else is “how did you think about doing that? How did you have the patience? I never thought you would do that. I am in no rush.
EE: Poise, patience and energy. It sounds like you don’t want to do the predictable…
SV: No that was something my mom used to say to me. My dad mostly coached me as an individual. My dad and brother played hockey so my mom knows the game and she would say, “Rocket Richard never did the same play Sarah. No one knew what he was going to do.” That is something I have always done. You have it or you don’t
EE: Where are your folks living?
SV: My parents are 7 hours away, closer to the Maritimes in Gaspe. My father he played Junior A hockey there and my brother played Major Junior in Quebec.
EE: What do you think of your Montreal team this year since it was the first draft this season?
SV: I never experienced it before. This is my first year and I was impressed with level of play.
Taking the league down to 5 teams was a really good idea. Every team could have beaten any team. That is what you want. With five teams competitive, you see them often so it can get pretty rough.
It was good for US to have an American team. (Boston) Before the strongest league was NCAA in US. This year it is stronger than my last year in college play at Harvard.
EE: What kind of work are you doing now?
SV: I graduated in psychology at Harvard. Now I am working in sports etudes…high school which does different sports so you can be on ice one hour a day instead of class, not teams. So lots of practice but no school no team. All the athletes play on different club teams.
I recently got hired last summer (2010). After the Olympics they asked me to be part of program. I work 3 times a week. Next year we start a women’s program and I will be in charge in Sherbrooke.
I will be on ice 2 hours a day. I am also starting a hockey school in Sherbrooke this summer; it will be the first one. And will run from August 8-12th.
EE: You have a selection camp coming up to make Team Canada.
SV: I know what to do. I know my role has changed; I am more of a leader now. I was able to score when team needed it. I feel very confident with my skills and leadership role. I am going to training camp with lots of confidence. The hip injury I have had for 3 years so it is not a factor.
EE: What kinds of things can national team players do to move the game forward?
SV: Players have had a lot of help and they are involved. Sami Jo Small plays and helped game. Cassie Campbell has helped and France St. Louis has hockey schools and Danielle Goyette is coaching.
At the same time we need help from the media. The NHL would be best help we could get. We are not asking for millions; the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League) is something that is very doable. It is very frustrating. I train the same amount as any NHL player and sometimes more in the off season. People have to be interested. If we get help from media, people will want to follow us. People are not informed; they think it is only an Olympic sport and when no Olympics we don’t play.