By any measure you care to apply, Caroline Ouellette is teeming with integrity. And now that she’s free to live her best life on her terms, unencumbered by the demands of being one of the world’s greatest hockey players and a society that is increasingly finding itself on the right side of equality and tolerance, this seemed like as good a time as any for Ouellette to hang up her skates and move on to the next chapters of her life.
And those two chapters are, in very distinct order, motherhood and coaching. Ouellette, one of the greatest women hockey players Canada has ever produced, announced her retirement from the game in mid-September at 39. Surely, the Hall of Fame awaits her in three years, and until then she’ll remain firmly entrenched in the game as a coach – doing skills work with Les Canadiennes de Montreal, the Canadian Women’s League team for which she starred for nine seasons; serving as an assistant coach with Concordia University; and coaching with Hockey Canada, with her first assignment as an assistant coach for this year’s entry into the Four Nations Cup in Saskatoon in November.
But those roles pale in comparison to what Ouellette views as her primary focus in life, sharing the motherhood duties of 11-month-old Liv Chu-Ouellette with fiancee Julie Chu, former captain of Team USA and longtime rival on the ice. Parenthood changes everything. Just ask anyone who has had a child. And with an unconditional well of love to give to a very lucky baby girl, Ouellette has found she’s really good at something else. She has discovered a maternal instinct she never knew she had. Ouellette had never spent much time or felt terribly comfortable around infants until she had her own. And now that has all changed. “It’s crazy to have someone who absolutely and completely depends on you,” Ouellette said. “It’s so incredible and so powerful and so beautiful, but it’s also so scary. Right now she’s kind of started to hug and she crawls to us really quickly when she sees us arrive, and my heart melts every time. It’s the most beautiful thing. I have loved every stage. We were telling this to our doctor and she said, ‘Just imagine the first time she says, ‘Mama, I love you.’ ’ I think that will be too much for me.”
Thanks to Ouellette’s association with CCM, Liv already has a pair of skates and a custom-made mini-stick with her name and the Canadian and American flags embossed on it. It all makes for an interesting dynamic. What if Liv ends up being as talented in hockey as her mothers? Will she play for Canada or the U.S.? For that matter, what if both Ouellette and Chu end up reaching the pinnacle of their coaching professions and again compete on opposite sides, with Chu coaching Team USA and Ouellette behind the bench for Canada? It could happen. Ouellette wants nothing more than to coach Canada at the Olympics someday. Chu, who is actually Ouellette’s boss as head coach of the women’s team at Concordia, is a rising star in the coaching ranks as well. Ouellette said they often butt heads, with Ouellette deferring to Chu with the Concordia team because Chu is the head coach. “We both have strong personalities, but we always joke that we make great hockey together,” Ouellette said. “She’s strong-minded, and I love that about her, and most of the times she’s right. We’ve already talked about it, and there’s no way we can go to the Olympics against each other. I don’t think we can go through that again.”
It may seem strange that two players who have been rivals on the ice for so long can be as close as Ouellette and Chu are, but it’s not strange to them. Their on-ice rivalry began in 2003 when Ouellette’s University of Minnesota-Duluth team defeated Chu’s Harvard squad in overtime in the NCAA championship game. They’ve been in a relationship since prior to the Torino Olympics in 2006, with Ouellette coming out on top in all three Winter Games. The most dramatic was in Sochi in 2014 when the U.S. controlled much of the gold-medal game against Canada and seemed on the verge of winning its first gold medal since 1998. Leading 2-0 late in the game, the U.S. gave up two goals in the final four minutes and then one in overtime on the power play, with Chu out killing the penalty. It was a seminal moment for both. It’s not easy to experience the most exhilarating moment of your life when you know that less than 200 feet away, the person you love most in the world is crushed. “When you’ve lost three in a row before that, and this is your chance to win, it’s very heartbreaking and awful, that’s for sure,” Ouellette said. “I’m not going to lie. You’re happy, but then you’re also hurting because the person you love most is in so much pain.”
Chu does have the edge in world championships, though, winning gold in five of them in which they have gone head-to-head, while Ouellette won four. All told, Ouellette won six worlds, one NCAA title and five championships in the NWHL/CWHL – the last of which she won in 2017 with Chu as her teammate, only days after finding out she was pregnant with Liv – which makes her legacy secure. But most importantly, Ouellette left the game on her terms, finishing her career with Les Canadiennes last season after giving birth to her daughter. And not every athlete is that lucky. Marcel Dionne was put on waivers in his last NHL season and finished his career in the minors. Angela James, one of the great pioneers of the game, was Team Canada’s last cut before the 1998 Olympics, the first to feature women’s hockey. Ouellette was cut from the 2015 Canadian women’s team and was told by coach Doug Derraugh that she’d be the first one called if there was an injury. And that’s exactly what happened. Ouellette started on the fourth line and worked her way up to the top unit with Rebecca Johnston and Marie-Philip Poulin, scoring a goal in her last-ever outing with the team as Canada lost 7-5 to Team USA in the golden game.
And the individual accomplishments are just as impressive. She was named CWHL MVP and won the scoring title in 2010-11. Three times in the World Championship she was named one of Canada’s top three players and scored at least a point-per-game pace at practically every level of competition over the course of her career. In her combined NWHL/CWHL career, she registered 482 points in just 260 games, and in three years with the University of Minnesota-Duluth, she averaged 2.36 points per game.
I was afraid that I would never get to the point where I could move on from hockey
– Caroline Ouellette
Ouellette played for two full decades at the highest level of the women’s game because she had the combination of a rare array of gifts, an insatiable desire to learn and improve and an ability to adapt her game. Team USA legend Cammi Granato recalled going up against Ouellette when Granato was playing with Concordia in the mid-1990s. Ouellette was just a raw teenager then, a player who used her obvious size and strength to her advantage. But as her career progressed, she learned to refine her game to become a more dangerous player. “Initially, when she first came onto the scene, everybody thought of her as this power forward,” said former Canadian teammate Jennifer Botterill. “But she continued to evolve and develop her game. She always respected the evolution of the game and was always finding new ways to get better and find ways to be dominant every time she played. Playing against her in the CWHL and playing with her on Team Canada, she always elevated the people around her. I think Marie-Philip (Poulin) learned a lot from her.”
Said Ouellette: “I loved every minute of playing hockey. For me, there was never too much training, too many practices, too many games. I loved it, and I was honestly afraid that I would never get to the point where I could move on from playing hockey. I came back to play with Les Canadiennes last year a couple months after giving birth, and I’m glad I did it. It really gave me the closure of really feeling, ‘OK, this is it and I’m OK with it.’ Today, I’m completely at peace, and I never thought I would get there.”
The same could be said for the life Ouellette is building with Chu and Liv. Until they both retired from the game, Ouellette and Chu had a relationship that was an open secret in the hockey world. They didn’t go out of their way to tell people about it, nor did they make any attempts to hide it from those who knew. We have all come a long way – society, the hockey world, Hockey Canada and USA Hockey. There was a time when Ouellette and Chu could not openly declare their love for each other. Now, they have an Instagram account that is overrun with pictures of them with their baby. Two other players on opposite sides of the border battle – U.S. captain Meghan Duggan and longtime Canadian player Gillian Apps – were recently married. Jayna Hefford, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in November and was recently named commissioner of the CWHL, is married to former Team USA player Kathleen Kauth.
Ouellette, like many players in women’s hockey, has been knocking down barriers since she was the only girl on an all-boys team in Quebec in the early ’80s. In fact, she and some other Canadiennes players conducted a hockey camp in Gander, Nfld., with boys and girls in attendance, and when it was over, she had her picture taken with a couple of young boy players who had caps and hoodies with her name on them. “I couldn’t help but think this could have never happened before the Vancouver Olympic Games (in 2010),” Ouellette said. “Those young boys, they’re going to grow up respecting women, respecting female athletes and being fans of our sport. The power of sport proves that equality has no limits, and it’s the same with sexual orientation, I think.”
Gains that once came in small and painful increments are now happening seemingly at breakneck speed. Think about it. Both Ouellette and Chu live and work in a society where they can raise a child together and pursue their dual objectives of becoming high-performance coaches. Things are coming together quite well. She points to Duggan and Apps getting married and says it’s an indication that people are finally beginning to be free to live the lives they were meant to live. “Believe me, if Julie and I had our choice, we could have gone the much easier road by having a normal family and a normal life,” Ouellette said. “This is not a choice. It’s who you are and whether you choose to live who you are. I still can’t comprehend how many people are still struggling with their sexuality and how many people we might have helped with that. There are so many things in life that are difficult, that are negative, that are painful, that are sad. What we have is an expression of love between two people, and it doesn’t matter about the gender.”
This story appears in the November 5, 2018 issue of The Hockey News magazine.