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Sami Jo Small is such a good, loyal teammate that not only did she accept her role as a goaltender with Canada’s national women’s hockey team—playing or sitting in the stands—with grace and dignity, but when she completed her memoir, she made sure that each and every player read it and okayed what she wrote about them before publication.
There are a few reasons that Small did this, like keeping their trust, getting facts correct, and confirming what she remembered for her just-released book, The Role I Played: Canada’s Greatest Olympic Hockey Team (ECW Press).
“I made sure when I finished the manuscript to send it out to all my teammates, so that they could not only have the first right of refusal for any of the comments that I made about them, but also to collaborate and corroborate with what I had written to make sure that it was the right timeline,” Small said in mid-October 2020 from her Toronto home. Their reponse? Most replied, “Oh, I don't remember yesterday!”
“I wanted these people that I had such respect and admiration for to be okay with the words that were in there and that they felt like it was the story they lived also, albeit from my perspective,” added Small.
The need to check the facts was important—she watched a lot of old game tape, some even on Betamax tapes—but Small was careful not to insert what she knows today into the past. The book is not written chronologically, weaving lessons from her youth into her time with the Canadian women's hockey team, from just before the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, to 2006 in Torino, and the various World Championships and other tournaments along the way.
“[It] was difficult to not use hindsight, because there's so many things that I now know about people or know about coaching or administrating, but I couldn't use those thoughts or feelings, because I really wanted to put myself into that situation and be that 22 year old or 26 year old, whatever at the time, and not invoke my own knowledge,” Small said. That even applies to her friends and teammates, who perhaps went on to marry an opponent, such as Caroline Ouellette wedding American Julie Chu; at one point Small recalls a hit that Ouellette laid on Chu that changed the direction of a game. “These two women are now married with two children. But that was a big hit ... a big moment, but it would have so been different from their perspective.”
The Role I Played is the result of a decade's work for Small, but even before that, she kept journals of her athletic achievements, especially for track and field, and maintained diaries at different points in her life. All of that came into play.
“That really helps when it was time to write, to get an idea of timelines, but also how I was feeling when it came to, for instance, goals that had gone in, or games that I had played, I had the log books from those games,” she said. That meant she could revisit a goal that was scored on her, whether it was a good or bad goal.
To improve her writing, Small took courses, and wrote and re-wrote for a decade; then, when ECW Press signed her up, she had to cut about 100,000 words. “I drastically overwrote this book, with the idea that somebody else would come in and do all the slashing and burning, but they didn't, they told me to. And so that made it hard.”
Post-Torino, Small pivoted to a full-time career as a speaker, having fit in some speaking engagements around hockey in the preceding years. Lessons learned on the stage helped shape the book, even if her role as a professional speaker isn't really addressed in it.
“My initial talks were mostly about motivation and achievement and how you too can achieve the pinnacle and all that stuff,” Small said. “But the reality is when I shared stories from the stage that showed the vulnerability, showed the emotion, that's what resonated with audiences. And I felt like those were the stories that I was hearing most often after I came off the stage. People wanted to share their stories that were similar, things that they had gone through outside of sports. And so when it came time to write the book, I felt like I already had an advantage to know what resonated with people and it wasn't going to be a book about, "You too can become an Olympian!" That has not been what I've shared from the stage. That's not what I wanted to get across. I wanted to get across that these women are real people with real emotions, and that we all go through these same emotions, albeit it could be in sports, in your workplace, or in a family environment.”
Small does delve into her own personal life, her love life, a bit, but it takes a decided backseat to hockey in the narrative, as it did in real life. She's now married to Canadian national team sledge hockey player Billy Bridges, and they have a daughter.
The Role I Played might have more heartache and tears than any other hockey book in history, but it's hardly histrionic or overwrought or manipulative. At one point, Small stresses that she is not a hugger.
“Myself, I am not very emotional—my husband would attest to that—and so writing the stories was extremely hard. I felt like, if I was writing a tough story, and I was really putting myself in that moment, and experiencing and living it all over again, I would be angry or sad at dinner, like my husband would often ask, "Did I do something? Is everything, okay?"I didn't get to play the game 20 years ago,' and all the emotions are flooding back. And so I don't think I was necessarily one to share the emotions at the time,” she said.
The reader suffers along with Small as she's pulled from a game, or asked to be the third goalie watching from the press box; you feel the aches as she goes through the training camps; you can sense the team coming together at isolated bonding sessions. It means that The Role I Played is a roller-coaster of a read, offering never-before insight into the Canadian women's hockey team.
“I'm not an outgoing, emotionally vulnerable person. It's something that I've really had to work on to share that. And I think working as a speaker and now as an author, it has been extremely cathartic for me, being able to talk about these emotions and realizing that so many other people live them as well. I don't think I would have known that playing,” concluded Small. “That's why I think there's so much juxtaposition with the feeling of wanting your team to succeed, but the sadness and anger that goes with not playing; the guilt that goes with that, I think there would have been way less guilt had I known that these were just human emotions.”
NEW TEAM, NEW PAPERBACK
A little more news on Max Domi, who was traded from the Montreal Canadiens to the Columbus Blue Jackets on October 6 (and then signed a new two-year contract)—his memoir, No Days Off: My Life with Type 1 Diabetes and Journey to the NHL, is now available in paperback from Simon & Schuster. Jim Lang was the co-writer on that one.
Travis Roy, the Boston University hockey player that ended up paralyzed for life after only 11 seconds on the ice of his first shift in 1995, died on October 29, 2020. His life story is told in the 1998 book, Eleven Seconds: A Story of Tragedy, Courage & Triumph, which Roy worked on with E.W. Swift.
Joe Black was a Toronto-based photographer, who ran the Graphic Artists studio than shot everything from hockey games at Maple Leaf Gardens to the headshots that the CBC used on CFL broadcasts, to the photos of new Ford vehicles. His hockey photos were in a ton of books through the years, and two of his most famous shots are Peter Mahovlich's goal in Toronto at the Summit Series, and Punch Imlach, with the Stanley Cup on the desk and a chalkboard noting that practice is cancelled for the next day. He lived a remarkable life, and died at the age of 94. I wrote about Joe at my SlamWrestling.net website: Joe Black was an iconic Toronto photographer
Joe Black admires some of his work in 2018. Photo by Greg Oliver
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