Member of the Canadian National Women’s Hockey Team and Olympic gold medalist, Haley Irwin was asked if she had ever been treated differently “because you’re a girl.”
“Yes. That is reality, unfortunately,” said Irwin – especially when it comes to pay grades for male and female athletes.
Irwin pointed to the U.S. women’s soccer team, which has won more championship trophies and medals than the men’s team, but is still paid less than male players. “In no way is that acceptable. Challenge it. Fight it,” she urged.
Irwin was addressing a group of more than 150 female Grade 10 and 12 students at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Bradford West Gwillimbury on Thursday, part of a morning of sports practice in field ball, followed by an inspirational talk and question-and-answer session.
Taught to skate by her grandfather at the age of two, Irwin said she knew from then she wanted to play hockey – and solved the problem of a lack of girls’ teams in her hometown by simply signing up to play with the boys.
She did not let naysayers hold her back; she became one of the first girls to make a Triple A team, and went on to win a four-year hockey scholarship to the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
“I was a student athlete. Really hard to understand it at first; I wanted to be an athlete student,” Irwin told the girls, but she quickly learned that she needed the grades if she wanted to play.
She also learned “an education is forever. That’s for life, not just for a year, two years,” on her way to earning a Bachelor of Science in Health Education.
Irwin set her sights high from the very start.
As a little kid, “I wanted to play in the NHL. No one told me, 'No,'" she said. Later, she switched goals and set her sights on playing hockey at the Olympics.
“I thought I was just going to make it,” Irwin said – that all she had to do was decide that she was going to the Olympics, and that would be that. She soon discovered it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
She did make it to the under-22 women’s Development Camp two years in a row – but she was cut from the squad two years in a row. There were, she discovered, no guarantees.
“I needed to acknowledge my weaknesses and get better,” Irwin said, urging the students to “stand up and face your challenges… You’ve got to go through things. You’re going to go through things.”
Irwin tried harder and made the team on her third try. She was invited to Calgary to try out for the Canadian National Team in time for the 2010 Olympics.
Twenty-seven young women were invited to Calgary. Only 22 would make it to the Olympic roster. Irwin was one of them.
“I was the unknown. I was the underdog,” she said, looking back.
Despite years playing hockey, Irwin had never made the senior roster or played on a championship team. It pushed her to try harder, and she found herself on the national team in time to win gold at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
She was also on the national team that won gold in Sochi, in 2014, in the famous “comeback game.”
Canada was trailing 2-0, with less than four minutes remaining on the clock in the third. The Canadians scored twice to tie the game – the second goal with less than a minute in regulation time – then won in overtime 3-2.
“Until that final buzzer goes, don’t tell me, 'No,'” Irwin said, another life lesson she shared with the teens.
It was a different story in 2018, in Pyeong-Chang, Korea. Canada had to settle for silver, falling 3-2 in a shootout with the American squad.
“We didn’t accomplish our goal; however, I’m still proud of what I’ve accomplished,” Irwin said, admitting, “we did cry, a lot of tears… We know we disappointed our country. But you’ve got to move past it. We are no longer the Olympic champions. It does not take away from the two golds. It does not take away from the silver.”
She provided lessons in sportsmanship, goal-setting, and grit – but also in overcoming personal challenges.
Irwin suffered a concussion – “my fifth” – that sidelined her for nine months. And just weeks before she was cleared to play again, she learned she needed hip surgery that would mean another six to eight months of rehabilitation.
“You have two choices,” Irwin said. “You stay down and feel sorry for yourself, or you get up and fight.”
She wallowed in self-pity for “24 hours,” then got up and fought, undertaking a program of rehabilitation. But she was also wise enough to know when it was time to take a break.
After 30 years of “dedicating my heart and soul to hockey," years of injury, and the mental-health challenges that accompanied her concussion, Irwin decided to step away from hockey in 2019.
“Mentally, spiritually and emotionally, I’m just drained,” she told the students.
She turned 31 this year, but she said some mornings she wakes up to aches and pains that make her ask, “Am I 60?”
Knowing when to ask for help is important, Irwin told the students, something that she learned when depression hit, after her last concussion. “It is OK to not be OK,” she said. “It is OK to reach out for help. It is OK to ask someone if they need help.”
Irwin may not be practicing and playing hockey anymore, but she is involved in hockey development programs for both boys and girls in Barrie and Bradford, and in addressing, and inspiring, high-school students.
“I just want to give back,” she said. “As women, we are afraid of success and failure. Don’t be afraid to mess up when someone’s watching. Believe in yourself. Know your strengths… Building confidence takes time.”
One student asked Irwin what helped her most in her journey to mental wellness.
“My sports psychologist. My friends and my family,” she said. “Surrounding myself with positive people.”
And what would she say to people who tell her, “No?"
“I would prove them wrong,” Irwin said. “They will not stand in my way. Don’t let them stand in yours.”
Irwin also brought her two gold and one silver Olympic medals to the school, and she encouraged the students to come up and touch the heavy medals.
They are hers to keep, but, she said, “they are Canada’s medals.”