Ancaster’s Laura Fortino has every reason to feel confident in her game as she prepares to help Team Canada’s women’s ice hockey team battle for a fourth straight Winter Olympics gold medal in Sochi, Russia next month.
Yet when she does feel any doubts, the Bishop Tonnos grad says she draws strength from her past success on the ice, both during a stellar career stateside at Cornell University and while representing Canada on the under-18, under-22 and national teams. Highlights – and there are many – include being named one of two defensive all-stars at the 2012 International Ice Hockey Federation championship in Vermont, where Canada took gold with a 5-4 overtime win over its perennial U.S. rivals.
The rearguard also posted an incredible plus-142 goal record over four years at Cornell, where she was named to the All-American first team three years in a row, Ivy League Player of the Year on 2011 and was either a nominee or finalist for the NCAA Division 1 player of the year in every season.
“Earlier this year, I sometimes had days where I lacked confidence,” says Fortino, named to the 21-member Olympic squad on Dec. 23.
“At points this year I looked back on how well I prepared and how my development as a player has really, really progressed over the years. I just believed in that and the tool set I have as a player,” she says.
“Having that success, especially my four years at Cornell playing in the best women’s league you can, the NCAA, and having that success, for myself (I know) I can do it and I can do it at this level also.”
While she managed to come home to visit parents Ignazio and Ivana for a couple of days over Christmas, Fortino has been living and training with Team Canada full-time in Calgary since August.
At 22, the former Stoney Creek Junior Sabres star is the fourth-youngest player on the Olympic team.
She says she’s honoured to be playing alongside the likes of captain Haylee Wickenheiser, who has represented Canada in all four Olympics since women’s hockey became a medal event in 1998.
“Probably half of the girls on the team or more, they were my role models when I was younger. They were my idols, all the girls that I looked up to, and I was, like, ‘I one day want to be like them and play in the Olympics,’” Fortino says.
“But the fact that I’m even now able to play and be their teammate and hopefully win a gold medal and go to the Olympics with them, it’s a bit surreal.”
Known for her offensive prowess – she had 133 points in as many games at Cornell – Fortino says she’s worked on all aspects of her game to become a more complete player.
“The one thing they really emphasize is being able to play both ends of the ice and that’s something I’ve really had to learn, to make sure my defensive game is as good as my offensive game,” she says.
“I think for me naturally bringing both to the team is really going to help a lot.”
While Canada and the United States continue to dominate women’s hockey, Fortino says other countries have made great strides, noting Finland reached the gold medal game at last November’s Four Nations Cup – won by Canada – by knocking off the U.S. squad.
Sweden meanwhile gave Canada a good run in the lead up to the final, dropping a 4-3 decision.
“I feel like this year there’s going to really be a big step up in women’s hockey and the competition,” she says of the Sochi games.
Fortino acknowledges Canada will be under pressure to once again take gold, but says that’s part of playing hockey in this country and the team embraces the challenge.
Adding to that challenge is the sudden coaching change that saw ex-NHLer Kevin Dineen take over the bench following the surprise resignation of Dan Church in mid-December.
Under Dineen’s helm the team lost all four final games of a six-match exhibition series against the United States – although the final two were by one-goal margins and Canada has a history of turning things around when the games count.
Fortino says she’s confident Dineen “will do a great job,” given his experience coaching in the NHL and representing Canada at the international level as a player.
“I think with the veterans we have and the leadership on the team, we’ve really come together to move forward,” she says.
“I think if we focus on the little things and get better and better as a team, we’re hoping success will follow and we can bring back that gold medal.”
Though being an Olympian will be a new experience for her, playing in Sochi won’t. She and her teammates went there in September for two exhibition games against Russia, both won handily by Canada, so they’ll be familiar with the venue.
But Fortino says she’s still adjusting to the idea of going to Sochi for the real thing, one made easier by a top-notch Olympic training centre in Calgary that offers players “everything under the sun” as they prepare for the games.
“I don’t think it really has truly set in for me that I am an Olympian now and I’m going to be going to the Olympics,” she says. “I think it will hit me soon, but I think it won’t be until I actually get there for the opening ceremonies and it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m actually here.’”