Heaney deserving of honour

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:23 AM ET

Geraldine Heaney doesn't really think of herself as a pioneer so much as a girl who just wanted to play hockey.

"We used to play on the outdoor rinks in North York where I grew up," she said.

"I'd be the only girl and usually my brothers stuck me in net -- you know, nobody else wanted to do it so they said 'just put the girl in net.' "

That was a quarter century ago. Last night, Geraldine Heaney watched as her sweater number, 91, was officially retired by the Toronto Aeros and hoisted into the rafters at Seneca College Arena.

"It is all a bit overwhelming. When you think how far this sport has come ... "

The sentence hangs. Heaney has a gold Olympic medal, a matching silver, she played 123 games for Canada and more than 1,000 in the National Women's Hockey League with the Aeros.

She scored the winning goal in the first world championship in 1990.

"That's when she got known as the Bobby Orr of women's hockey," Aeros general manager Don Heys said. "She was always an offensive defenceman and she came in, took a pass and if you look at the picture she's flying horizontal to the ice -- just like Orr -- when the puck goes into the net."

She played for 27 years and, in her last game at a Canadian championship in 2003, her goal won the championship.

"Nice bookends for a career," Heys says.

She retired after the 2003 season but not so much because she couldn't play anymore. Goalies might not have been able to stop her but a baby did.

"I was pregnant, I had to stop," she says, laughing.

"I married and we had put off having children until after the Olympics."

She now is coach of the University of Waterloo women's team and at age 38 stands amazed at how far the game has come. There are photos of that first world championship in 1990 and the Canadians look like something from the theatre of the bizarre.

Pink uniforms will do that.

"My brother was playing junior and he heard from the manufacturer that we would have pink sweaters. I told him, 'Nah, they wouldn't do that.' He just smiled.

"When they opened the box we had pink sweaters and white pants with a pink stripe. We looked funny but we didn't care, especially in the final in front of 10,000 people."

As her number is lifted, there will be a dozen memories flooding back, says Heaney.

"That first world championship, scoring the winning goal is probably the biggest thrill. It wasn't like the 16th goal in a 16-0 game. We beat the U.S. 3-2. So it meant something."

Then there is the knowledge she helped build something that has become an integral part of Canadiana.

"One of the happiest things to me is that I can now walk into an arena and see girls playing. We have our own teams, our own leagues."

Nobody has to play goal anymore.

While Heaney was a pioneer on the ice, it was in 1981 that Justine Blainey, then 11 years old, blew the arena gates open for women.

Blainey went to court in a five-year fight for the right to play on a boys' team in the Metro Toronto Hockey League. Heaney is an example of what can happen when people are allowed to follow their dreams.

"There's a greater acceptance in allowing women to play sports that are uncommon to women," Blainey said.

"In the past, if you were strong, tough and aggressive you must be gay, male and masculine ... you must not be able to have children. That's the thing people said: 'Oh, you don't have a uterus.' Now people have respect for female athletes, and that's nice to see."

Blainey now has two children; Heaney's is 16 months old. The naysayers were wrong about that uterus thing, too.

So what made Heaney so special?

"I've never seen anyone with such innate skill," Heys said. "Her hand-eye co-ordination was above anyone's -- probably of any gender. She sees the ice and anticipated better than most female players."

Heaney admits having her number retired "puts the exclamation mark" on her career and yes, there might be a lump in her throat.

"I miss playing but it isn't winning medals that I miss the most. It's the people you meet. The memories the game gives you, that's what I miss. The camaraderie."

The legacy Heaney has left the game is simple.

Inspiration.

Because if a girl ever wonders if their game is worth fighting for all they need to do is visit Seneca Arena ... and look up.


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