University is a place where a lot of people figure out their life’s calling. Where future leaders and people who rewrite history have a moment that will change their lives, and because they are so brilliant, the lives of many others.
“Hall of Fame hockey player” is usually not one of those callings affected by university. But for Kim St-Pierre, the first female goaltender, and eighth woman, to be in inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on June 24, McGill University put her on the path toward induction.
“I owe a lot to my McGill years,” she said.
“When I was probably 14, I started being invited for Team Quebec training camp,” St-Pierre said. At the time, the Canadian Senior Nationals were one of the most important tournaments for Canadian women’s hockey players. It was the stepping stone for the national program, and eventually ended up as the pre-cursor to the Clarkson Cup.
St-Pierre played boys hockey growing up, because like so many of her contemporaries at the time, there were limited opportunities for girls playing hockey. She never made it past camp for Team Quebec. While playing with boys and men was a path that was normal for goaltenders — from Lesley Reddon and Manon Rhéaume to Charline Labonté and Shannon Szabados — St-Pierre struggled with the adjustment to women’s hockey and a short camp wasn’t the best place to pick it up on the fly.
“I was cut like four years in a row,” she said about her Team Quebec camps. “So I would just go back to the boys team. And that’s why when I got to juniors, I thought my career was over because I wasn’t recruited to play Major Junior or anywhere else in men’s hockey.”
That was when St-Pierre met Dean Madden. Madden, then the general manager of the McGill Martlets women’s hockey team, recruited St-Pierre in Chateauguay. The offer threw St-Pierre.
“I was so surprised, because of so many things. First, I didn’t speak English,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone going there. I didn’t know if it was for women’s hockey as well. I was surprised. [I told him] ‘women’s hockey is not working out for me... Maybe for your men’s team?’. And he said ‘no, we want you for the women’s team.’”
She eventually accepted the offer and started playing with McGill. With experience dealing with the pace and intricacies of the women’s game, St-Pierre’s career took off. Her dream of becoming an Olympic athlete was suddenly in reach when she was invited to her first Team Canada camp.
The camp, held at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal in October 1998, would be her first national camp other than an appearance at the pre-Olympic regional camp in 1997. Five goaltenders were named to the roster, including Rhéaume who didn’t attend the camp as she was pregnant with her first child.
St-Pierre performed well, and made the roster for the Three Nations Cup that December alongside Sami Jo Small. The adversity didn’t end there. In fact, it just grew.
In St-Pierre’s first start against the host Finland, she gave up the opening goal on one of the three shots she faced in the first period. After Canada took a 6-1 lead, she allowed three more goals in the third period, with the game ending 8-4. She made 13 saves on 17 shots.
Two days later, she made her first start against the United States in a game that could clinch first place for the Canadians with a win. She allowed two goals in the first period and Canada trailed 2-1. Danièle Sauvageau, the team’s coach, pulled her after that period. Canada would go on to win 4-3 in a shootout to claim first place.
“It was at a small rink in Finland, and I was like, ‘wow, my career is over’,” St-Pierre said. “But it was for the right reasons. She didn’t want me to get scared [...] and then I kept gaining confidence, gaining experience at the international level.”
“It was a process and I had to trust [Sauvageau],” St-Pierre said. “Just to get used to playing for Team Canada was adding pressure, it was not easy at the beginning.”
The process would continue. Despite the on-ice setbacks for Team Canada, St-Pierre made that year’s World Championship roster where she won gold. She also made Team Quebec for the first time, where they won gold at Esso Nationals.
The next year, she would again backup Small at the World Championship where Canada would win gold. In 2001, she would finally get her chance to lead Canada as the starter. In her three games, she had a 0.67 goals against average and a .969 save percentage. The timing couldn’t be better. It was the last tournament before centralization for the 2002 Olympics, and it gave St-Pierre a leg up.
“It gave me the momentum to go into 2002,” she said “I started the centralization with a lot of confidence.”
She used that confidence to become Canada’s starter for the 2002 Olympics, her goal becoming a reality in four years. While many remember the gold medal game against the United States, where Canada killed 11 of the 13 penalties doled out by referee Stacey Livingston. But before the penalties, and before the unproven claims of a flag on a floor, there was a semi-final against Finland.
After two periods of play, Canada trailed 3-2 despite outshooting Finland heavily. In the Canadian locker room, players were worried about their parents not having tickets to the bronze medal game and what they would be thinking at the time. Once again, adversity.
That was when Dana Antal, “one of the quietest players on the team,” according to St-Pierre stood up.
“Before Salt Lake, [we went to] a quiet place in the mountains just to make sure we’re getting away from everybody and and making sure we’re connecting as a team. It was so peaceful and quiet and it was called Emerald Lake,” St-Pierre remembers. “It was Dana that stood up in the dressing room and shouted ‘EMERALD LAKE!’, meaning come back to the quiet, the inner peace and it felt like ‘Okay, everyone, let’s come back to reality. We can do this’,” she said.
Canada ended up scoring five unanswered goals in the third period, winning the game 7-3.
“I think it was something that really helped our team connect and make sure we were all in together and following the plan,” St-Pierre said. “And then we were very successful after that for the final game. It was definitely one of the greatest moments I’ve seen in the dressing room.”
From there, St-Pierre solidified her Hall of Fame career with the Canadian national team, graduating from McGill and playing in the CWHL for the Montreal Stars. She played three full seasons in the CWHL, winning three Goaltender of the Year awards and two Clarkson Cups.
She is the first Stars/Canadiennes player to be inducted in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“Being the first is always a privilege and an honour,” she said. “The Montreal Stars was such an amazing time in my career because McGill was over and I needed to be ready and stay ready for the national team. We were such good friends, we got along really well. This team was unbelievable, great memories. Some of my best friends come from that team.”
Some of those friends will join her in Toronto soon enough. Caroline Ouellette, who made her senior national team debut at the same tournament, is eligible in 2021 while Julie Chu, Charline Labonté and Marie-Philip Poulin are all likely to be nominated, among others.
St-Pierre’s journey was never easy, but the adversity she went through forged metal: Three Olympic gold medals. Five World Championship gold medals. Four World Championship silver medals. Three Clarkson Cups.
The Team Quebec cuts, the rough national team debut, and a speed bump on the road to gold in Salt Lake City made the five-year wait for Lanny McDonald’s phone call seem like a floating puck into her chest.