For Caroline Ouellette (2005), winning a fourth Winter Olympics gold medal this past winter isn’t the only reason she’s been on top of the world in 2014. She actually was on top of the world.
Just two months after beating the United States in Sochi, Russia, the former University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey star and assistant coach joined fellow Team Canada hockey player Genevieve Lacasse, a dozen wounded Canadian military members and a handful of corporate executives and guides on a cross-country ski trip to the magnetic North Pole.
“That was one of the most incredible adventures I’ve been on in my life,” Ouellette said when she was headed to Ottawa, Cananda in the latest of her many travels this year. “It’s really unlike me because I don’t do any outdoor camping and I hadn’t cross-country skied since I was 8 or 9 years old. When I got the invite, the first thing I thought was, ‘Wow, this is going to be a great personal challenge to be able to accomplish that.’ ”
After Canadian Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser backed out of the trip in order to recover from a broken foot, Ouellette took her place. The Canadian team captain then invited Lacasse to join the fundraising trip, for which corporate CEOs needed to pony up $25,000 each for the expedition and which netted $1.75 million for injured soldiers. Lacasse’s father, Eric, is stationed in Afghanistan and her brother and sister-in-law are members of the Canadian military, didn’t think about her answer for very long, Ouellette said.
“We are seen as heroes in our country, when in my opinion the true heroes are the ones who put their lives on the line to defend our country and protect other countries,” Ouellette said. “It was really rewarding to hear soldiers’ stories and their life-changing moments and how they overcame all those obstacles. I felt privileged to be on this journey.”
The group flew above the Arctic Circle to Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island and skied about 125 kilometers in a five-day period in temperatures that reached 30 below despite 24 hours of sunlight. Ouellette wore a 25-pound backpack and dragged a 50-pound sled that included a tent, food, stoves, gas and other equipment. Despite being a novice skier, she says she only fell five times.
Ouellette and Lacasse wore their Team Canada jerseys and snapped pictures as they reached the projected magnetic North Pole location at 78.9 degrees latitude, or approximately 800 miles south of the geographic North Pole.
Team Canada Overcame Obstacles to Win Gold
That wasn’t the only time the pair enjoyed a photo session in an exotic locale. Canada’s fourth consecutive Olympic women’s hockey gold medal came at the expense of the Americans in improbable fashion, coming from behind to win 3-2 in overtime in the gold-medal game in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.
For the 35-year-old Montreal native, the win marked a high point in her international career.
“When I came back from Vancouver (in 2010), I thought nothing could be greater than, as Canadians, playing the Olympic Games in our country,” she said. “But this time around was more satisfying because of how hard this season was and how lucky it was to come back against (Team USA). Luck was on our side in so many ways.”
After training full-time for several months, the Canadian players were shocked when coach Dan Church abruptly quit in December and was replaced by Kevin Dineen. Ouellette said she remained positive even when the team was going through rough patches before and during the Winter Games.
“The Olympics were an extension of our season; they were filled with a lot of obstacles and difficulties and changes,” she said. “I have to admit when we were in the middle of those dark days, I started doubting if we had enough energy left in the tank and had the confidence to compete against the top teams in the world.
“It definitely was the most difficult season, physically and mentally, in my career.”
Ouellette Holds Time at UMD Close to Her Heart
One person she hasn’t gloated to about winning four gold medals is UMD coach Shannon Miller, who coached Canada to silver in the first Olympics to include women’s hockey in 1998.
“I don’t think I want to bring that up,” she said.
Ouellette remains close to her former mentor and the school where she won an NCAA Division I championship as a player (2003) and an assistant coach(2008). She scored 92 goals and totaled a team-record 137 assists in 97 career games in college.
“One of the best decisions I made in my hockey career was to go to Duluth and become a Bulldog,” she said. “When I went to UMD, it helped me progress as an athlete and as a person. I met so many wonderful people there and Shannon Miller was the best coach I’ve had in my life.”
So what about coming back to UMD, which had an opening for an assistant coach?
Ouellette says she spoke to Miller about the vacant position, but had made too many commitments throughout the year to make it work. Though her future with the national team is cloudy, Ouellette plans on continuing to play with the Montreal Stars of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for at least one more season.
“It seems like this is not the right timing for me, but we will see in the future,” she said of a return to UMD. “It’s a program that I hold so close to my heart. And I love coaching and want to stay in the game, but perhaps not at the moment.”
Ouellette Having Fun Away From the Rink as Well
Right now, Ouellette is just having fun enjoying life’s experiences — experiences that wouldn’t be available had it not been for success playing hockey.
Besides skiing the frozen tundra, Ouellette watched her hometown Montreal Canadiens play the Boston Bruins in Game 6 in the Eastern Conference playoffs, attended Game 5 of the Western Conference final between Los Angeles and Chicago, and saw the Kings capture the Stanley Cup over the New York Rangers in Game 5 at Staples Center.
“I never thought I’d get to see the Stanley Cup being won and it was truly magical to be able to experience that,” she said.
In late June, she flew to San Francisco with Julie Chu, a U.S. national hockey team member and one-time fellow UMD assistant coach, and together they saw the Giants’ Tim Lincecum toss his second career no-hitter.
“It was quite nerve-wracking; I’ve never been so nervous at a baseball game,” Ouellette said.
The pair was also in Alaska where they flew in a small plane, saw bear and moose while hiking and caught and cooked their own sockeye salmon for dinner.
“What an incredible place, everywhere you look it’s just gorgeous,” she said.
This story was written by Rick Weegman on July 5, 2014. Weegman is a reporter for the daily publication, the Duluth News Tribune.