A Small gesture

ADAM WAZNY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:48 AM ET

SELKIRK -- A tiny gesture from Team Canada was a big deal for the Smalls yesterday.

The St. Vital family was all smiles at the exhibition tune-up between Canada and Finland at the Selkirk Recreational Complex, watching their own daughter, sister and Olympic hero suit up for her home country in her home province.

As the Sun reported yesterday, the Canucks made the decision to play Sami Jo Small -- the alternate goaltender behind Charline Labonte and Kim St. Pierre for the World Women's Hockey Championships this week -- last night.

"The coaches didn't have to play me," an upbeat Small said after not only her first international appearance in Manitoba, but her first real game in this province since she was a 17-year-old with the Winnipeg Warriors.

"I had so many people in the stands that I knew ... but they heckled me the whole second period."

NEXT BEST THING

It wasn't Winnipeg, but judging from the number of No. 1 jerseys among the Small cheering section in Section 1 (of course) during Canada's 9-0 victory, it was easily the next best thing.

"Especially when you think there's no way you're going to see her play," said brother Luke Small, who struggled to remember the last time he saw his younger sister play live. "I was actually planning on going to Toronto after the worlds to watch her finish up in the (National Women's Hockey League).

"But this is certainly better than that."

Small found out Thursday she would be dressing yesterday, and her unexpected appearance last night before her friends and family might be considered a long overdue thank you from the national team.

One of a handful of Canadian women hockey players who was instrumental in public awareness of the program and the sport as a whole, Small has suffered through a full complement of emotions the last couple of years.

First, she didn't get to play when Canada took on the United States in an exhibition game at MTS Centre on New Year's Day 2006.

Then, left off the Olympic team and put into a secondary role, she cheered on the Canucks to a gold medal in Turin.

Two months ago, Small found a new definition of disappointment when she wasn't on the final roster for the World Women's Hockey Championships this week in Winnipeg and Selkirk.

"We didn't think we'd get to see her play here at all," Pat, Sami Jo's mother, said prior to the game. "This wasn't something she asked the coaches for. When we found out that she wasn't going to be on the team, we didn't think we'd get to see her play. She's worked so hard, we're so proud of her, and she's been so graceful with the way that she's handled all of this.

CAME UP BIG

"You just want your children to be happy," her mom added. "It's just so nice to see her play at home again. It's been hard for us to see her get disappointed."

The 31-year-old netminder got the start last night, her first international start for Canada since Nov. 27, 2005, (a 2-1 loss against the United States).

Though she only faced 22 shots, Small did have to come up big a number of times, especially in the first period.

Her biggest save came in the latter stages of the period, when she slid across the crease to rob Finnish forward Karolina Rantamaki of a goal.

Canada takes on Switzerland Tuesday at MTS Centre (7:30 p.m.).


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