Girl’s Got Game: 60 minutes with National Women’s Team Goalies Kim St. Pierre and Charline Labonte
Check out our latest interview with Kim and Shannon Szabados – plus just released shots of Kim’s Olympic Mask.
Kim St. Pierre. Photo courtesy of Derrik Young.
For a garage-leaguer like me, the mere thought of squaring off for 60 minutes against two of the top goalies in Canadian women’s hockey brings to mind the near-certainty of finishing on the losing end of a shutout. Nevertheless, I feel like I came out a clear winner after spending an hour with current Canadian National and 2006 Olympic Team netminders Charline Labonté and Kim St.Pierre. Here are the highlights from an interview in Montreal that touched on points of style, technique, the women’s game and the World Championships. While this interview dates from last year, Charline and Kim are once again with the National squad, joined by newcomer Shannon Szabados. Moreover, Kim St. Pierre made the headlines earlier this season when she filled in for an injured Carey Price at a Montreal Canadiens practice.
Q : For both of you, the road to the National Team had a fair number of bumps. Can you tell us about what it took to make it to this point in your respective careers?
I only started playing hockey at age 10, whereas now girls begin hockey at 4 or 5. I played in men’s leagues up until age 18 (Mens’ AA), never really thinking I would be on a women’s team. In fact, I was cut 5 times from the Quebec women’s team that went to the National Championships! It took time to adjust to the women’s game, but this will be my 7th world championship and I am as excited to put on the Team Canada jersey as I was in my first year. Making the Olympic squad was mostly a question of timing and circumstance. Back in 1998 (the year of the Nagano Olympics) Manon Rhéaume (then Team Canada’s longtime starting goalie) was pregnant, so I got my chance. At the time I felt like it might be my last hope to play for the Team Canada.
I spent a season in the Quebec Major Junior league with Acadie-Bathurst in 1999-2000, then the next year in Junior AAA with the St. Jerome Panthers. Then I had an opportunity to go to Switzerland with the women’s under 22 National Team and I made the roster on my first try. But when I tried to return to my junior team they had replaced me. I didn’t have anywhere to go and almost quit hockey. I would’ve stayed in men’s hockey if there had been a spot for me. I ended up with a women’s team, the Laval Mistral. We were just terrible! Then for five years (until the 2005 world championships) I kept trying to make the National team and kept getting cut. I was so close to my goal that I just didn’t want to give up my dream.
Q : On that note, can you talk a bit about what it’s like to have to compete against each other for your minutes with the national team? Is this sometimes tougher than the competition in the actual games?
The training camp isn’t easy; it can be pretty stressful and sometimes it seems like we are fighting against each other. However, in the end its the coaching staff who decide. Charline and I are super good friends and we’ve known each other for a long time. We know Peter (National Team Coach Peter Smith) will have a tough time deciding who gets to play. It’s pressure but it’s a good kind of pressure. The Olympics and World Championships are the elite level for us. It takes so much work to get there that you want to perform and be the best. We can’t make millions doing this so the motivation is really the competition and playing for our country. Between Charline and I it’s a sane competition. We help each other and push each other at the same time.
For sure it was hard to for me to make the national under 22 team right away, then get cut from the senior team for 5 years when I thought I was already good enough. When we go into our international matches, we know we are a strong team and we do expect to win. Still, there is pressure, although a different kind. In some games I might get only 8 or 10 shots, but 2 or 3 of those could be breakaways when your concentration can’t slip. While the early round games are sometimes easier, the finals are usually very tough to win.
Q : Both of you said you had to change your game to play women’s hockey after playing in men’s leagues. Can you elaborate on the differences from a goalie’s perspective?
Kim : In the men’s game the players are bigger and there is less space to move, especially in front of the net. In the women’s game there are not as many goals scored from the blue line because the shots are less powerful. Instead, there are more 3-on-2’s, 2-on-1’s, lateral plays and drop passes, so we have to stay mobile. It’s more like the European game. Still, we can learn a lot watching the NHL. I saw Carey Price on TV last night; he is so big, he hardly seems to move. My style is more of a « butterfly-react » than Price, who uses a « butterfly–block ». Charline and I need to have a more varied save selection.
Charline : When I played in the Quebec Major Junior league I would use the butterfly block all the time. With the women’s team the shooters are so precise; they can score a lot of goals up high in the corners so I can’t just use that and nothing else. I had to learn to become more of a reactor, especially with my hands. I also had to hold my position longer and not use the butterfly too soon so I could protect the top of the net better.
Q : The women’s game is certainly different. Is the equipment that you use different as well?
Kim : In 2001 I signed a contract to wear Sher-Wood equipment and Charline and I are now both with them. They are a Quebec company and I think they are proud to sponsor two Quebeckers on the national team. Sher-Wood created a women’s pattern goalie pad for us, which is lighter than the men’s model and has less padding since the shots aren’t as hard. The blocker has the same surface area, but the glove is smaller to fit our hands. We wear NHL spec equipment, since that is the standard now for international hockey. I wouldn’t say I am « picky » about my equipment, but I worked with Sher-Wood at getting my requirements and preferences set, and now they reproduce the same design for me. We get one set of equipment per year from them.
Charline : Sher-Wood has been great in designing our equipment and adapting it to our needs. I have always had trouble getting my trapper the way I like it, so they helped with that. I am not comfortable with too many knee stacks on my pads so I use the thinnest ones I can. I don’t like any of my equipment to be too bulky or too tight; I prefer everything loose so I can move. I am still using the same jock that I had when I played ringuette as a kid. It hardly has any protection but I hate wearing one at all!
Q : Kim, can you explain the recent changes in the women’s professional league and comment on the public’s attitude towards the women’s game?
Kim : The eastern section of the NWHL league suspended operations last May (2007) because of financial difficulties. It was a group of determined players, lead by goalie Sami Jo Small, who worked non-stop for six months to get sponsorship with TPS and create a new league so that our season could be saved. Personally, I am surprised that more people don’t come to our games. We are not as fast or as powerful as the men, but maybe we are smarter and more creative in the way we play. And we don’t fight, but there is no fighting in basketball or baseball either…
Charline : Sometimes people don’t have the best opinion of women’s hockey, but they are often the ones who have never come to see us play. Most of those who do come out end up saying that our game is great. I think women’s hockey can serve as a way of balancing some aspects of the men’s game.
Enough said ladies. Hopefully the news of high-level women’s hockey will become more and more a part of the banter in hockey circles. On that note, keep in mind the following dates :
IIHF World Women’s Championships, Hameenlinna, Finland
Canada will be bent on regaining their world title, which they lost to the US last year in Harbin, China
Canada vs. China- Saturday April 4, 8h00 EST
Canada vs. Sweden- Monday April 6, 8h30 EST
Tournament runs until Sunday April 12
Check the developments at:
Hockey Canada’s Web Site
-goalie instructor, Passion Gardien de But Goalie School, Québec
-contributor, Goalies’ World Magazine