Sami Jo Small has a ready-made answer whenever kids ask if it's scary to play goal for the Canadian women's hockey team.
"I tell them I don't have to get hit by a 200-pound guy; I just have to get hit by an eight ounce piece of rubber," said Small. "I'd rather get hit with that then go in the corner, even with some of the bigger girls that play in our league."
Small played in three Olympics with Canada's national women's team, winning silver in 1998 and gold in 2002 and 2006 before retiring from the national team. But the 36-year-old still blocks pucks with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women's Hockey League, which replaced the National Women's Hockey League in 2007.
The five-time world champion was in Prince George on Friday as part of the YMCA Champions Hockey Weekend, coaching teams of kids at the Coliseum while answering their questions and showing them her Olympic gold medals.
"I'm less about X's and O's and more about ensuring that they love the game," said Small. "That's what I do when I coach, try to ensure that these kids are still playing when they're 50. It's not only good so they can know the game right now but to be fit and active for the rest of their lives. I never want to turn a kid off hockey."
Small was unable to stay in Prince George for the entire weekend because she had to get back to Toronto where the Furies were meeting up for the first time after last month's player draft. The team is hosting a fundraising tournament Saturday for women's recreation hockey in order to raise money for equipment, ice times and travel during the season. She said the 50-plus women who play in the league make up a large percentage of CWHL's fanbase.
"These women who never got a chance to play growing up, it's attracting them," said Small. "Now they're playing and their kids maybe played and their husbands or partners played and now they realize it's a really great game. They become fans of the game and start to really know hockey.
"It's always fun to see the passion of these women," she added. "They're brand new to the sport but they're still warming up for 45 minutes beforehand and still talking about the missed passes in the dressing room after. It's really fun to see and makes me appreciate the game."
Small grew up in Winnipeg where she played multiple sports and was awarded a scholarship in track and field to attend Stanford University, graduating in 1998. She said she dreamt of attending the Summer Olympics but her event, javelin, became more difficult after Small had surgery on her shoulders, so she gravitated back towards hockey.
She played with the Stanford men's hockey team before returning to her home country and being named to the Canadian women's team for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan - the inaugural year of women's hockey in the Olympics.
"Nobody knew what to expect," said Small, who was the third-string goalie for Canada in 1998. "The next Olympics we had veterans that could talk to the rookies but we didn't really know what to expect with the huge pressure-cooker that the Olympics was.
"It was a nice environment to be a rookie in and it showed me just what Team Canada hockey was all about."
The experience of settling for silver in Japan left the Canadians hungry for gold in 2002 when the Winter Olympics were held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Team Canada had won the three world championship titles prior to the Olympics, but had lost eight straight games to Team USA in the lead-up to Salt Lake City.
"We kind of had the mantra of being the underdog which was nice because we were playing on their home soil in front of their home crowd and it was nice to be the underdog," said Small.
After securing her second gold medal with Team Canada at the Turin Olympics in 2006 with a victory over Sweden, who upset the Team USA in the semifinal, Small became involved in putting a business plan together for the CWHL.
"Our goal was to be professional and every year we get a little bit closer to that reality and last year we were able to pay our coaches for the first time, which is a great step moving forward," said Small. "We have teams now that have incredible skill and five or six national team players on every single team."
The CWHL consists of teams in Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, Calgary and Boston. Small said moving into the U.S. was a major boost for the league and now it's just a matter of securing sponsorship dollars, which is Small's job as sponsorship chairperson.
The league has one paid employee, while everyone else, including Small, volunteers their time, something she said is a necessity if the CWHL is going to continue to expand.
"People always complain about why isn't there women's professional hockey and why don't you guys get paid but really at the end of the day it comes down to us, putting the work in and pounding the pavement to get those sponsorship dollars," said Small. "It comes down to money and nobody's going to give it to us we have to go out and prove we deserve it."
The teams play a 25-30 game schedule each season with the top three teams advancing to a Memorial Cup-style playoff in a central location to battle for the Clarkson Cup, donated and named after Canada's former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. Regular season games are played on Saturdays and Sundays, except Calgary's, which generally involve three games due to the travel.
"You really do feel like a professional player except we don't get paid," said Small. "It's a great setup because we play on the weekends so we can still work during the week and train in the evenings. It's just a nice way to stay in shape. I would way rather do this than have to go to the gym 10 times a week. I'd rather be on the ice playing. I just really love it and the girls are getting better and better each year so it's a challenge for me to kind of stay at that level."
See Monday's Citizen for a story on TSN sportscasters Jay Onrait and Dan O'Toole, who were also in town for the YMCA Champions Weekend.