Who will carry a nation?

Hefford has a strong case, but she's not likely to be flag-bearer since Goyette did it in '06

By ALISON KORN, QMI Agency

A skill-testing question for anyone who has an opinion on who should be flag-bearer: who is the leading scorer on the Olympic women's hockey team this season? Hint: it's not Hayley Wickenheiser.

While Wickenheiser still leads in all-time points, it's her unassuming teammate Jayna Hefford, 32, who's heading into her fourth Olympics with 65 points in 45 games this season.

The ultimate clutch player, "Heffy" scored the winning goal in the 2002 Olympic final against the U.S. She scored another game-winner against the U.S. in a shootout on Jan. 1 this year. She's No. 3 on the all-time scoring list. Yet, few outside the sport know her name.

"She's never been a household name, which is unfortunate, because I think she is one of the, if not the best, in the world," said Lori Dupuis, a member of the 1998 and 2002 teams who runs a Kingston, Ont., hockey school with Hefford.

"She's quiet. You notice her a little bit in the game, but she just does everything right. She's not making blatant mistakes, but then she'll just all of a sudden get this burst of energy and get a winning goal. The amount of winning goals she has are outstanding."

The Canadian Olympic Committee will introduce Canada's flag-bearer for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games Friday in Richmond, B.C.

The 2010 Canadian Olympic Team is anticipated to number approximately 200 athletes, including 32 returning Olympic medallists from Turin 2006 and six world champions from 2009.

Hefford gasped this week when asked about the notion of being named flag-bearer. The possibility is totally hypothetical, because the last flag-bearer, Danielle Goyette -- No. 2 on the women's all-time scoring list -- came from the same team. So it will be some other sport's turn this time around. Fair enough.

Probably, it will be Clara Hughes. The Olympic champion speedskater and humanitarian is humble, brave and inspirational as both an athlete and person -- heck, I named my daughter after her. (I guess now might be a good time to explain all that to five-year-old Clara.)

Many others would be worthy, too: skeleton world champion Mellisa Hollingsworth, cross-country skier Sara Renner, bobsleigh veteran Pierre Lueders, speedskater Cindy Klassen and visually impaired skier Brian McKeever. The defending Olympic champion in moguls, Jennifer Heil, competes the day after the opening ceremony, so probably would decline.

That's right -- decline. Most athletes who compete the day after the opening ceremonies don't go, as it's a long, late night spent on your feet that can drain your energy. Four years ago, Don Cherry used his Hockey Night in Canada pulpit to criticize Canadian athletes who declined to be nominated to carry the flag at the 2006 Turin Olympics opening ceremony.

But Cherry had no idea what he was talking about -- the flag-bearer issue is about time and energy, not patriotism. It's not as if you march in to the ceremony, take a few pictures and are free to go. The security, commuting and schedule keep athletes out way past bedtime.

As a rower, I never carried the flag, but I marched in two opening ceremonies. Was I tired afterward? Yes.

As for Hefford, her team will have an easy game against Slovakia at 5 p.m. the next day, so she could probably get away with attending and carrying the flag.

Sadly, it's not going to happen. But she should at least have been considered.

"It would definitely be unbelievable," Hefford said. "It would be a huge, huge honour, and it's something that, to be honest, I haven't really thought about."

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