It would be understandably difficult to topple a pair of Olympic gold medal winning performances from the pinnacle of the sporting achievements of Rebecca Johnston.
That said, the recent Team Canada triumph at the 2021 IIHF World Championships in Calgary comes surprisingly close, on a very personal level.
Now 31 years old and very much aware that the end of her illustrious international career is definitely a function of years and not decades, Johnston was challenged even further when a ruptured Achilles sent her to the sidelines for a prolonged period of rehabilitation in 2020.
As the likes of Sara Fillier (21), Emily Clark (25), Blayre Turnbull (28) and others pushed hard to turn over the Canadian roster, the Sudbury sensation and graduate of Lo-Ellen Park Secondary School finds herself now as the oldest forward on the team that hoisted the hardware one week ago.
“I was really excited to come back from the injury, to have made the centralization roster and then make the World Championship roster,” said Johnston on Labour Day Monday, taking full advantage of the ten-day break the women will enjoy before jumping right back into the training regimen in preparation for the Beijing Olympics in February.
“Just being there made me so excited and proud. Obviously, the Olympic medals would be my proudest moments but I think this is really close to that, just in terms of what I had to go through, with the injury and COVID and everything going on.”
After dominating the United States in round robin play (5-1) in Alberta, besting the favourite who had captured the IIHF crown five straight times heading into play last month, the Canucks were pushed to the brink in the final, with Marie-Philippe Poulin netting the game-winning goal in overtime to lift Canada over the USA, 3-2.
Knowing that she needed a very solid tournament to remain in the hunt for a spot in the Olympic lineup six months down the road, Johnston was more than a little pleased with her performance.
“My skating felt good, I felt fast,” she said. “I was proud of how I was playing. I came back a more complete player, a different player than I was in the past. My game has been built on speed, so there were areas of the game that I wanted to improve on, some simple things that I may not have brought as much before when I relied more on my skating and skill.”
Paired largely with both Clark and Turnbull, the trio created chaos by virtue of their relentless puck pursuit, a style that Johnston embraced. “We brought so much speed and grit and created a lot of turnovers – it’s something that we all can do,” stated the 5’9” physical specimen who first rose to national prominence as a 16 year-old, named as the top forward at the U18 National Championships in November of 2005.
“The coaching staff really liked that about our line.”
There is a noticeably different perspective that Johnston exudes these days compared to the youthful burgeoning star that left northern Ontario to attend Cornell University in the fall of 2007.
“I don’t know how much longer I will be on the team and I want to enjoy every moment of it,” she stressed. “It’s a true honour and a pleasure.” In fact, more than perhaps any other member of Team Canada, Johnston was forced to utilize all that the past 18 months has thrown her way in accessing the frame of mind necessary for success.
“A lot of it came down to the mental training that I did off the ice,” she said. “Throughout my injury, I definitely feel that I improved on the mental side of things, being able to adapt and overcome and not think too much about things and stay in the moment.”
“I’ve always been the type of player who puts a lot of pressure on herself – and to an extent, I still do,” Johnston continued. “But I’m starting to learn that it’s okay to be excited and appreciative to be there. I have come to realize that I can be a great player and still enjoy myself.”
On a personal level, that is fine. But the truth is that much was written leading into the 2021 Worlds, noting the pendulum of women’s hockey momentum swinging increasingly over to the side of the Americans. Whether it was the influx of young talent or the fact that some had written them off before play even started, this version of Team Canada was different.
“It was crazy because I think this was the most confident team that I’ve ever been a part of with the national team program,” suggested Johnston. “We used to go into these tournaments and we would play scared, we would play on our heels. This time around, we played with a little more swagger, in a good way, and I think it showed on the ice.”
“We were pressing forward, playing aggressively – and we have a talented group as well. It’s not just that we work hard. The rookies were really confident, bringing to the table what helps make them great. They weren’t scared to do what they do best. Everyone really played off one another.”
Yet despite the positives of a round robin win over the USA, Johnston and other vets needed no reminders that a 2-1 Canadian victory in pool play meant precious little by the time the United States rebounded to secure gold with a 3-2 shootout win on the final day of competition in South Korea (2018).
“The 5-1 game obviously helped our confidence, believing that if we come out that hard, with that speed, that we could be all over them,” said Johnston. “But we knew that going into the final game, they were going to come out harder.”
The Canadians fully understand that there is little time to rest on their laurels. The reality is that a final roster for China (2022 Winter Olympic Games) will not be announced until just before Christmas. That is front of mind for the daughter of Bob and Colleen Johnston, one of six children in the ultra-athletic family.
“You never know what can happen in Olympic years, but I am happy with where I am at, for sure,” said Rebecca. Perhaps not Olympic gold medal winning happy (just yet), but awfully darned close.