By Rob Del Mundo, Senior Staff Writer
Despite the multitude of challenges posed by the global pandemic, Team Canada Olympian and Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) star forward Natalie Spooner has kept her calendar filled with activities. All in an appropriately physically-distanced, responsible manner, of course.
The year 2020 was supposed to have included a pair of milestones for the 30-year-old native of Scarborough, Ont. In March, she was slated to don the maple leaf for Canada’s National Women’s Team in a bid to end her country’s eight-year gold medal drought at the 2020 IIHF Women’s World Hockey Championship in Halifax, N.S. And in June, Spooner was supposed have wed her fiancé, skills coach Adam Redmond.
COVID-19 necessitated the postponement of both events.
During her appearance on OFFSIDE: The Podcast, Spooner reminisced about her introduction to hockey as a youngster while also providing details about the virtual camps that she hosted in the summer. She also shared her insight into the future of women’s hockey as the sport perseveres to gain more stability and visibility.
Spooner learned to play the game by skating with her three older brothers, she told the OFFSIDE panel. Although she came to realize that the NHL wasn’t a viable option for her, she drew inspiration from Olympian Jennifer Botterill to pursue her dreams of playing for Team Canada. Her collegiate career took her to Ohio State University and eventually she earned a spot on the senior national team.
The pinnacle of Spooner’s career so far has undoubtedly been the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, a Winter Games highlighted by Canada’s exhilarating overtime win against the United States to capture the gold medal in women’s hockey.
“Since then it’s kind of been a whirlwind of lots of hockey,” Spooner said. “I played for the Toronto Furies, and then the CWHL folded, so now I play in the PWHPA. I’m still in Toronto; however, we get to do the Dream Gap Tour and showcase our game and prove to people that there is a market for women’s hockey out there, and people want to watch it.”
In June of last year, Spooner held her annual hockey academy in a virtual format due to the pandemic. Redmond and Mark Fitzgerald, Anaheim Ducks head of performance and former Toronto Marlies strength coach, both served as her co-instructors. Her special guests included national teammates Rebecca Johnston and Meaghan Mikkelson, the latter who was Spooner’s partner on CTV’s The Amazing Race Canada in 2014. Ducks’ forward Adam Henrique and two-time Stanley Cup winner Kris Versteeg also participated.
Spooner followed up her five-day academy with a high performance camp in August. She says that she hopes to play in at least one more Olympics, possibly two more if her body can withstand the rigours of the regimen over that stretch.
“I’m training hard right now for 2022,” she said. “But I would love to play another one. I’m going to take it one at a time and see how they go. I’m really just focused on (Beijing) and then I’ll re-evaluate after. I would love to play two more if my body lets me, and if I feel like I’m still at the peak of my game, or still improving and have more to give.”
This past year, when she wasn’t strapping on the blades to coach eager students via Zoom, Spooner used Instagram Live to host what she labelled the Blue Quarantine Couch sessions. Monday mornings gave her followers an event to look forward to, whether it was karaoke with Canadian teammate Jill Saulnier or make-up application sessions with fellow Team Canada player Sarah Nurse, or even just baking lessons from the Spooner household.
In the fall, Spooner was a judge of CBC’s Battle of the Blades, one year after finishing as a runner-up in the event with figure skater Andrew Poje.
In terms of the long-term viability for women’s hockey, Spooner told OFFSIDE that if she were making the decisions, she would have one professional league to be sponsored by the NHL, using the same model under which the WNBA is sponsored by the NBA, basketball’s greatest association.
“The WNBA’s model has been successful,” Spooner said. “You even look at the CBA they signed last year. Obviously with corona, things got a little bit changed. But they made so many amazing changes, and you just see how far they’ve come. I would love to have the infrastructure, have the marketing and the support of the NHL, just to get us off and running. I think the league would speak for itself and be sustainable.”
While the addition of the NWHL’s Toronto Six expansion team might not align with the longer-term vision of the PWHPA, in which Spooner trains in the Toronto region for Team Sonnet, she acknowledges that the team’s presence provides women with more options in Canada’s largest city to play hockey after university.
Much like fellow gold medallist Botterill was a player that galvanized a then 11-year-old girl from Scarborough, Ont., into chasing her dreams, so has Spooner become the model of the aspirations of young Olympic hopefuls across the nation.
“I still have that picture of me with her gold medal,” Spooner said. “I think back to that moment and how that really sparked my dream. If I’m able to do that for another girl, just by someone inspiring me, and me being able to inspire someone else, you never know where that girl may end up and how she’ll be able to use her voice to change the world or make other dreams happen.”
Listen to the full OFFSIDE: The Podcast episode featuring Natalie Spooner here: https://www.spreaker.com/user/10106966/offside-16-natalie-spooner
And learn more about all of Spooner’s positive initiatives to help grow the female game here: https://www.nataliespooner.com