Go Sami Jo!

Have you seen that advertisement for a Canadian charity that supports access to sports which features a colourful montage of kids participating in a variety of activities with spectators cheering from the sidelines? It’s that rare commercial that I can watch right now, despite the fact that I become emotional when I listen to the voiceover referring to all of the things that families are missing with the pandemic having shut down community sports and recreation. It’s not at all the same as being apart from loved ones, lost employment, facing food insecurity or the horror of coping with Covid-19, but the loss of joy that participation in sport can bring is unmistakable.

At our house we’ve been accustomed to years of three or four hockey games a week, opportunities to socialize with adored ‘hockey families’ at tournaments, and long car rides to games out of town. The pleasure of watching the games and discussing them after with our girls is another missing part of family life, so it was a pleasure to read the memoir by Canadian Olympian Sami Jo Small and get a solid hockey fix.

Sports autobiographies are always an opportunity to see a story that the reader feels they already know through a fresh lens. We’ve all experienced the Olympic highs and lows that Small describes but this has been through our television screens or online commentary. Seeing them through the eyes of a player who was there for every moment is another thing all together – it’s quite a thrill to read the analysis of each play from a woman who is so intimately familiar with every move of the puck. It’s also a very complete picture as she shares her entire experience, from trying out for the Olympic team in 1997 to the moment when she is cut from the National Women’s Hockey Team in 2008. As the ‘alternate’ goaltender Small was there for every exciting moment, trained and fully ready to play, but was sometimes disappointed to watch from the stands or the bench, and she is able to share this regret as she analyzes the importance of her role on the team.

Beyond her incredibly detailed analysis of the games, Small provides a frank perspective on what it feels like to be part of an incredible team of athletes who are fighting every day to keep their spot on a national team. It’s a hard book to put down. Each season the line-up is updated with changes to the coaching staff, young players added, older players possibly returning, and her own position on the team in jeopardy. Her status on the team changes and her reaction to these adjustments come with reflection on her history as a player and her years of growing up in Manitoba.

The Role I Played is packed with anecdotes that show how hockey has always been a part of Small’s life, but also include her experience on Stanford University’s track and field team (she also played in net for their men’s hockey team), her incredible friendships with the other players, and how she tried to find balance outside of the busy world of training for world championship and Olympic competition. The narrative easily moves back and forth in time, for example from a moment on the ice in Nagano to a memory she has of playing hockey in Bantam AA, but each section has a heading with a date so it reads like the diary of a friend – a busy, athletic friend who spends time with Cassie Campbell, Jennifer Botterill and Hayley Wickenheiser and one exciting winter when she compared goalie equipment with Gord Downie after they played a game of shinny.

There is sadness in her story as Small sees friends dropped from the team or learns that her own role as a goaltender is shrinking, but there is also incredible happiness as they celebrate gold medal wins and grow together as a team. As time passes, they participate in each other’s weddings, start to build families and new careers as their time with the national team ends. Unlike a hockey memoir written by a NHL player who might mention a trip to the Olympics as small part of their life story, in the life of a female hockey player the disruption to their lives is significant and the remuneration far less.

Like so many others on the national team, Small played in the CWHL (Canadian Women’s Hockey League); first for the Brampton Thunder and then the Toronto Furies, so it was a natural fit for her to become the league’s vice-chairperson in 2007 and eventually their general manager. She also works as a professional speaker and advocate for girls and women in sport.

The Role I Played is a celebration of pushing against boundaries, from the time Small’s father signed his 5-year-old daughter up to play hockey in their local all-boys league to her outstanding focus during a Stanford vs. Berkley hockey game when misogynistic taunts were shouted at her by the Berkley crowd. Her epilogue is half message of gratitude to the people who helped her in her life and half reminder that, as far as the world has come in recognizing women’s hockey, it has that much further to go.

Sami Jo Small’s spot-on hockey play-by-play memories of competing for Olympic gold will make you want to cheer and her stories of friendship and family will warm your heart. It’s not quite like being in the stands watching a game (I miss eating arena popcorn) but it comes very close. Pop some popcorn and then start reading.

— Penny M.