Worth the excruciating wait, says Nurse
By Scott Radley
The Hamilton Spectator (Dec 29, 2017)
Close to 90,000 girls are registered to play hockey in this country.
That doesn't include women playing in adult leagues or those who once did and have hung up the skates. It's a safe bet that nearly all of them have dreamed about wearing the Maple Leaf at the Olympics. There simply is no grander goal for female players in Canada.
So as Sarah Nurse and Renata Fast waited their turn to meet with the national squad's coaching staff late last week, to find out if they were going to crest that summit, they were dying a slow death of nerves. All made infernally-worse by the fact that of the 25 women who had to have a one-on-one to hear their fate, they were third- and second-last on the list.
"We had to suffer all morning," Nurse says.
Ancaster's Laura Fortino had been near the front of the line and already had her thumbs up, though there was never really any doubt with her. A star four years ago at Sochi, who assisted on the golden goal, and was now a stalwart on the national team, she was as close to a sure thing as you could get.
The other two were different stories.
After a terrific career at Clarkson University, where she won an NCAA title in her sophomore season, Burlington's Fast showed up on the Hockey Canada radar just a couple years ago. A great-skating defenceman, the 23-year-old says she only started to believe an Olympic spot was possible about 12 months back.
Nurse, meanwhile, has been in the Hockey Canada system for years, working her way through various age-group teams as she played at the University of Wisconsin. The 22-year-old Hamilton native says even with all that experience, it wasn't until the past year that she really started to believe it could really happen.
Still, nothing was guaranteed. Not even when they were chosen to be part of the elite final group and moved to Calgary in August for the team's intensive and gruelling five-month centralization process. There were still five cuts to make — and having never been on the Olympic team before, they were candidates for that agonizing fate.
So as they waited their turn, the tension was almost unbearable.
Fast admits that after fully investing herself in this process and whittling life down to little but hockey since moving west — not to mention all the off-season workouts she'd done with Fortino here at home — she'd considered the horrible possibility of walking into the meeting and hearing she hadn't made it.
"It's definitely something that crossed my mind," she says. "I think it crossed a lot of the athletes' minds. It's hard for it not to."
The endless wait wasn't helping.
When her turn finally came after what seemed like forever, Nurse took a deep breath and walked into the office. Sitting in front of her were the four coaches. Mercifully, head coach Laura Schuler immediately extended her hand.
"Congratulations, you're going to the 2018 Olympics," she said.
"It took me a second to clue in, to make sure my mind was not playing any tricks on me," Nurse says. "I think when they told me, I was in shock."
The news received and her adrenalin now racing, she hustled out of the office — the back way so players who'd been told their fate wouldn't run into other players waiting their turn — and called her parents who'd been waiting on an equally excruciating bed of pins and needles.
Then it was Fast's turn. She'd only arrived at the building 10 minutes before her appointment. The nerves were already on edge. No sense making it worse by being around more even tension.
"But it was still the longest 10 minutes of my life," she laughs.
What she didn't know in the days leading up to this moment was that the coaching staff had decided to change tack midway through camp and rather than keep 13 forwards and seven defencemen, they'd moved to 14 and six. That meant her chances had become slimmer without her even knowing it.
Yet, as she walked in, she got the same response. Right away Schuler gave her the good news. The relievingnews. Like Nurse, it took a moment to sink in.
"Honestly, I froze up," she says. "I didn't believe it at first. My jaw dropped and I was staring at her."
Within minutes, both were texting Fortino. Now a veteran of the Team Canada roster who has intentionally taken on a greater leadership role with the youthful roster, she has become a mentor to both Hamilton-area players. She even lived with Fast in Calgary.
For the 26-year-old, hearing the pair had both made it brought happiness. Walking into the meeting later that day with all the survivors — especially the first-timers — and seeing the looks on their faces provided a new level of joy.
The trio's success capped an implausible story for local women's hockey.
Of the 23 women who will vie for Canada's fifth-straight Olympic gold medal, 13 per cent are from this area. Throw in Brianne Jenner who once played for the Stoney Creek Sabres, and if there's been a better day for the game in this area, it's hard to imagine when it might've been.
Fortino says the second time is as exciting as it was four years ago. Getting the good news never gets tiring. Both Nurse and Fast say even a week later they're still trying to believe it's true. The word surreal keeps popping up. After all these years, they're on the Olympic team. The Olympic team.
"I saw a commercial for the Olympics on TV the other day," Nurse says. "It was crazy just thinking I'm going to be there in a month-and-a-half or so."
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