VANCOUVER, B.C. – Veteran forward Cherie Piper has travelled a challenging road since helping the Canadian women’s hockey team win gold at the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Just a few months after finishing second in scoring behind Hayley Wickenheiser at the Turin Games, Piper suffered a major knee injury while playing in a college hockey game. The setback kept her off the national team for over a year.
Shortly after her return to the team, her father Alan died of a heart attack in February 2008.
The toll that took on 28-year-old Toronto native surfaced earlier this year when one of Canada’s best playmakers was left off the roster for the world championships in Finland.
“It was a long couple of years for me on so many levels,” Piper said Monday prior to Canada’s game against Sweden at the Hockey Canada Cup. “For me, it’s just battling back and trying to earn my spot back in the program and on this team.
“This has been my life for a very long time.”
Piper said the popping noise her leg made when a Providence player fell on it Dec. 8, 2006, was heard all over the rink.
Despite a torn anterior cruciate ligament, she played out her senior year at Dartmouth that winter. She had surgery just prior to the 2007 world championships in Winnipeg and watched that tournament on crutches.
Torn leg ligaments heal in time. The heart muscle can take a little longer. Piper grew up in a hockey-mad family.
She followed older brothers Michael and Stephen to their games. Wanting to beat her older siblings in road hockey fired the competitive spirit that led her to the national team.
Parents Alan and Christine were involved hockey parents as they drove their children to practices and games. After Allen died, Piper found hockey a painful reminder of her loss.
“My dad always coached me. He was a big part of my hockey. Showing up to hockey wasn’t initially the easiest thing to do,” she explained.
“It’s tough. It wears on you. Everyone deals in different ways. It put me back in a shell where I spent so much time taking care of the people around me that I didn’t necessarily take care of myself.
“Eventually it hit me. You look in the mirror and say ‘Oh my God, I need to start taking care of myself’ because I’m not progressing as a person and an athlete.”
Piper relocated from Toronto to Calgary a year ago to play hockey for the Oval X-Treme, but the move was for more than hockey.
“For me, I needed to simplify my life so I could deal with other things mentally and emotionally and then work on things physically,” she said.
“Moving to Calgary was good for me. It had all my training in one location. You show up, you have hockey, you have your personal trainer right there. In Toronto, it’s a little more difficult because you’re driving an hour to the gym and then hockey is an hour the other way. You spend a lot of your time commuting.”
Piper didn’t have the luxury of time when it came to the Canadian women’s team. The national under-18 and under-22 programs are churning out talent such as 18-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin, who immediately challenge for spots on the national squad and Piper lost her spot on the team.
When she found out she wouldn’t play in the world championship, Piper was devastated, although she was included among the 26 players invited to try out for the 2010 Olympic team this winter.
“Initially you go through a whole bunch of emotions. Angry, upset, disappointed and you start thinking ‘Maybe I should move on with my life. Maybe I should forget about hockey and move on with a career,”‘ she said.
“After that point, I made the decision that I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
When the Canadian team travelled to Finland without her, Piper embarked on two-a-day workouts with a personal trainer. She’s says she’s dropped about 20 pounds over the last year.
“I learned to take care of myself physically and mentally and that’s the track I had to stay on,” she said. “Physically, mentally, I’m in a good spot. I just think as long as I continue to improve every day, and I feel like I have been, I feel like I can contribute to this team.”
The five-foot-six, 167-pound forward handles the puck well in tight spaces, has a nice finishing touch around the net and is a winner in the faceoff circle. Piper has 28 goals and 59 assists in 79 career games with the Canadian team.
She scored seven goals and had eight assists in the 2006 Olympics. Piper assisted on the opening goal of 2002 Olympic final, which Canada won 3-2.
For all those reasons, Canadian head coach Melody Davidson is pleased Piper decided to fight for her place on the team and not give up.
“To be honest, I didn’t know what her decision would be,” Davidson said. “I didn’t know if she’d pack up and go home or she’d dig in and say ‘Mel you made a mistake and I’m going to prove it to you.’ She picked the latter and we’re better because of it.”‘
She says her knee is now 100 per cent. Piper misses her father and knows that kind of recovery can’t be rushed.
“You have good days and bad days and the bad days become fewer and far between,” Piper said. “You never forget and that’s something you realize. You never forget the people you lose, but you learn to remember them in different ways.”