Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Geraldine's our golden girl: Olympic champion receives hall of fame accolade

Geraldine Heaney in action on her way to winning gold at the 2002 Olympics

When it comes to counting the number of Northern Ireland athletes who have won Olympic gold, one name is rarely mentioned – if ever.

The fact that Geraldine Heaney attained the ultimate sporting goal as a member of Canada's ice hockey team in 2002 means she is easily overlooked.

Chat to the Lurgan-born lady for even a few minutes though and not only does just the slightest hint of an Ulster twang come out in her accent – most likely picked up from her parents – her pride at where she comes from is clear too.

"I love going back to see my family," said Geraldine, who has strong roots in County Armagh and County Down.

"I've been back three times since my kids have been born.

"When I go back to Northern Ireland I hardly get time to see anywhere because there are so many relatives to visit.

"I do like to go to the Odyssey and I have been to see the Belfast Giants a few times.

"I like going in for a drink. They have my shirt and picture up in a bar there and it makes me very proud to be recognised in the place where I was born."

It's not just here, however, where the 46-year-old – who emigrated with her parents when she was just a year old – is gaining recognition.

She made history last month by becoming only the third female player ever to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

In a 27-year career that saw her play over 1,000 games, Geraldine won four National Championships with the Toronto Aeros, but it was with the Canadian national team that she really excelled.

Canada won the first eight women's World Championships; Geraldine played in the first seven of those, but the highlight came towards the end of her career when the disappointment of losing the 1998 Olympic final to the United States was wiped out four years later, Canada beating America to win gold.

"As a single thing, getting inducted into the Hall of Fame isn't better than winning the Olympics," said Geraldine.

"It is recognition for my entire career, not just one part of it, and that's what makes it a huge honour.

"The Olympic victory in Salt Lake City was amazing, as was the whole experience, and it's nice to sit back now and reflect on what I managed to accomplish.

"The Hall of Fame weekend was wonderful too. I had my mum and dad there too and that made it special.

"Hearing my name read out and looking round at the three guys who were inducted at the same time, who all had fantastic NHL careers, made me realise just how big this was."

And to think while those ex-NHL stars – who included Stanley Cup winner Brendan Shanahan, whose father is from Belfast – earned huge salaries, Geraldine achieved all her success as an amateur.

"The girls don't get paid. It's like the GAA in Ireland where players are amateur, but they get a little bit of funding – here it's through the Olympic set-up," explained Geraldine.

"The women's league tried to go professional, but it's just too hard to keep going.

"There is so much hockey and a lot of people don't get an opportunity to go to watch games because they are playing or because they just haven't got the time.

"I have always ran hockey schools and that was my job while I was playing.

"I was never able to commit to a proper job because of hockey and I never thought anything of that."

What Geraldine is thinking about now is the next visit from her family in Northern Ireland, so that they can share in her Hall of Fame joy, having been part of her Olympic success 11 years ago.

"My family in Northern Ireland have no idea how big hockey is over here, although they all celebrated with me when I first went back after winning the Olympics – I don't know how many of them were there to meet me at the airport," Geraldine revealed.

"It's a way of life in Canada and everyone is into it," she explained.

"They do understand that getting into the Hall of Fame is a really big thing for me and they are pretty excited."

Geraldine added: "When they next come over to visit I'll be able to take them to Toronto to the Hockey Museum and Hall of Fame to show them just how big it is."

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