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Q&A with Team Canada’s Jill Saulnier

Saulnier talks about the decision to cancel Worlds in Halifax, training during a pandemic, and more

United States v Canada Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

The Ice Garden sat down with Team Canada forward Jill Saulnier, a native of Halifax, N.S., to talk about the 2021 Women’s World Championship in Halifax & Truro being canceled, and what it’s been like to train and prep for a World Championship in the middle of the pandemic.

Our conversation took place before the IIHF and Hockey Canada announced new dates for the tournament (August 20-31, 2021). The location is still being determined, but according to Sportsnet, Alberta is the frontrunner to host.

[Editor’s note: Portions of this interview were edited for brevity.]

How did your team find out that the tournament was being canceled?

It was kind of a weird day and a weird way to find out. We were in our selection camp in Halifax, and we were getting ready for our third and final game of selection camp so I was half dressed, ready to get on the ice for warmup. And all of a sudden, our trainers were just gone, and the staff was running down the hallway. It was super strange.

Nobody knew what was going on. So of course we were all trying to guess what’s going on—is there maybe some news about teams traveling in, did someone pull out? And then they brought us in the stands and the faces on everyone were pretty somber, and our GM let us know that they had decided to cancel Worlds.

From your perspective, how surprised were you to hear that decision?

I was really surprised. I was really taken aback because we had just done everything that we had to do to make sure we were in a safe environment. We’d already had a successful camp in Halifax [in March], and we were doing these crazy, crazy measures. We did everything right. We were tested every second day. We quarantined before, we were tested before, and we just did everything to make sure that we were in the best opportunity to have a successful World Championship with the public being safe, with the players being safe, and with the fans being safe. So I think that’s why it was such a surprising moment for us to hear that they had decided to just pull the plug.

Some people have questioned why the tournament wasn’t moved elsewhere months ago, potentially, just knowing how strict the protocols are in Nova Scotia overall, but it strikes me that Nova Scotia was probably the safest place to have the tournament. As a player, would you have felt as safe playing the tournament somewhere else? Does that factor into your mind at all?

You know, I’m from Halifax and I haven’t even been home since last summer. I couldn’t come home for Christmas because of the quarantine, because everyone in the province has been doing such a great job of making sure that this place has been safe and healthy. I didn’t even think about having it somewhere else because I just thought there’s no way that there’s anywhere else that’s a better place to have it than Halifax. The teams are going to come in and we’re going to make sure that everybody has a negative test and we’re going to run all our protocols to make sure that everything runs smoothly.

I do think it’s the safest place in the world. I guess, ironically, maybe it was a bad idea to have that because of the risk that something was going to change from having the tournament here.

I want to talk a little bit about your Instagram post, because I think that was the first domino to fall in terms of this collective reaction from players processing the news and being vocal about it. Why did you think it was important to speak up in the moment like that and just explain what was going on?

Like I said, I’m from Halifax and I felt like I owed my friends, my family, the fans, and the people in Halifax an explanation, as much as we could give, of why it was canceled. I woke up in the morning and I felt sick to my stomach because I knew how many people in the province were looking forward to having it, and just being able to cheer for something and something good in the province to happen. It was not only heartbreaking for us as players. I think it’s important for everybody to know how heartbreaking it was for so many people who really saw that light at the end of the tunnel with how exciting that was going to be.

I got a lot of positive reactions from that. But I definitely got some heat from that as well, calling me selfish, saying I only think about my team, saying I don’t care about the pandemic. I think those comments are so ignorant because people made those as if they didn’t think that I was also living in this pandemic. I also haven’t hugged my parents in a year. I also haven’t made it home for Christmas for the first time in my life. I’ve also watched funerals via Zoom and hit rock bottom multiple times emotionally with the feeling of being isolated. I do not feel “above” anyone because I wanted our World Championship to run. I think it’s important for people to know that my response to that being canceled was not out of disrespect or lack of caring for the public, but it was out of such disappointment that we were so confident we were going to be zero threat to this province, and it was just going to be a really positive experience for my home.

The post speaks for itself, but I’m curious if you could just kind of elaborate on what it was like to actually write it. This is just the writing nerd in me but it’s obvious you were balancing lots of different emotions there, but you were still able to write something that was so clear and powerful.

I honestly woke up in the morning and just sat on my couch in my hotel room and just started to write something down to kind of express what I was feeling. I didn’t know which direction I was going to go but like I said before, I was so looking forward to playing on the ice surface that I dreamt of playing for Team Canada, and I wanted everybody to know how excited we were for that and how surprised we were that wasn’t going to happen.

I really didn’t even think it was going to reach so many people, but I’m glad it did because I think it’s important that people know that we do put safety first, we really do, and the safety of the public. There was no way we would ever have run a World Championship where we didn’t have every protocol in place to make it happen. It’s not that we don’t care about the chances of an outbreak, or it’s not that we don’t care about the public and how the public sees it. We care more about people’s safety than anything else. I think it was so important for me to tell the public that, but also express that we did everything we could. I’ve sat in this room in this condo that I was in and not going for walks outside for months just to make sure that it was going to be a safe place for people to watch a World Championship.

Like you were saying, there’s so much you’ve all done this whole season to keep yourselves safe and to be able to be in the position to play, but those opportunities just have not existed for various reasons. I’m curious if that’s a struggle for you, to see that these opportunities are not happening for women’s players despite all these precautions.

As athletes, it’s our job. It’s what we do. It’s our livelihood. We wake up in the morning and we work out and then we go skate, and we’re doing our therapy and we’re making sure we’re taking care of bodies and doing all the little things with kind of no light at the end of the tunnel. But just knowing in our hearts that maybe something is going to happen. To do that for a year is really difficult, and it gets canceled last year, but then to do it for another year during a pandemic is another thing.

I’m not saying this as pity at all because I know everybody is struggling with their own lives and their own angles of how to figure this pandemic because nobody knows how. But all I’m saying is that we as Hockey Canada athletes were told the way to do it to make this World Championship happen. The way to do it was to have our bubbles throughout the year, not go out in public, and not be with other people. Stay inside as much as possible, stay away from people, and only go to the rink and the gym. We really did buy in, and I think that now that the World Championship was canceled, now that’s when our frustration really comes out. So I think the real frustrating thing about everything is that there wasn’t one more thing that we could have done, which makes it that much tougher to swallow.

Canada v United States Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

It’s been over a week now since the cancelation was announced, and at the time I think it felt like an overabundance of caution. But we’ve since learned that Nova Scotia is seeing a record high spike of cases [Editor’s note: As of this writing, there are 713 active cases in the province, an all-time high. 148 new cases on Saturday, May 1, is a new daily high]. Has seeing those numbers the past week changed your view at all or just made you think differently about it?

I figured you were going to ask that question, and all I can say to answer and all I’ve been thinking the whole week as those numbers continue to rise is that the way that we had the World Championship set up was really separate from the public. Had we not said where we were in the world and ran it with no fans, nobody would have known where it was because it would have ran successfully. Looking back in hindsight, I don’t think it mattered where it was, because I think ultimately at the end of the day, there were so many protocols in place and there were so many tests that were going to be done, that it would have been impossible for it to have an effect on the public.

I hate to see the numbers rise. I’m in Nova Scotia right now and all I want is the safety of this community. Everybody’s really at their wit’s end with this pandemic and all we can keep doing is keep trying to move forward and hope that we’re going to be able to get back on the ice soon.

You stressed how many measures Hockey Canada had taken to hold the tournament safely. What were your impressions of their effort and the community effort behind the tournament?

I wish you guys could see the protocols of what we did, and I’m sure the other countries were relatively paralleling. When we arrived in Nova Scotia, we went right to our hotel rooms, and the hotels had it set up so they made sure that a meal was at our door at certain times. We got a knock, we waited for about five, six seconds until they were away from the door, and then we picked up our meal. We got our COVID tests, and we would open the doors just slightly enough for us to get out there, take our mask only down to our nose, get tested, and then go back inside and lock the door.

From the outside looking in, hearing about the protocols, it sounded crazy. It really did. The amount of tests that were done, the tracking bracelets that we were about to get to make sure we didn’t leave our bedrooms, everything was just done so professionally and so to a tee, that there was really little room for error. Everybody that was involved in making that happen, they did a really incredible job.

This decision didn’t happen in a vacuum. The IIHF is in the middle of staging Men’s U18s, they’ve already successfully held Men’s World Juniors, but they decided not to have Women’s U18s this year and they don’t ever have a Women’s U20 tournament in any year. How problematic do you think that lack of women’s programming at the international level is?

One of the biggest things with women’s sports is exposure, to be able to watch your heroes play, and then eventually train with them and then eventually become them. I’m thinking back to when I was a young athlete and as I grew up and saw more and more girls playing, the talent gets bigger. The opportunity to be seen for colleges and your national team and ultimately your Olympic team gets greater, but that only comes with exposure.

I think it’s really important for women in all sports to have more opportunity to be able to showcase their talents. There’s millions of athletes out there, there’s millions of female hockey players out there who dream of being Olympians one day. If we don’t have the proper tournaments and the proper foundation, the opportunity is just not going to be there, and that’s just not what the future of sports should look like.

You talked a little bit before about what it’s been like this season in terms of trying to stay prepared, even though there’s really no set schedule of games to prepare for. I’m curious if there’s anything that you can take from that in a positive way that will help you with staying prepared in the future and just managing your rest and things like that?

For sure. I think something that I really learned from this whole pandemic and from trying to train to be my very best is to manage my work and manage my rest, and just to try to stay healthy. I think there were a number of times throughout the year that I burned out, because I just kept training. I just kept skating and I didn’t really know how to listen to my body because we didn’t really have that end in sight. Something that I did take out of the hardship of this year was really learning how to time manage and listen to my body so that I’m able to pick up where I need to and get my work done so that I’m ready to peak as soon as puck drops.