Canada's Brianne Jenner, women's hockey team embracing uncertainty of Beijing Games

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Canada's Brianne Jenner celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Canada's Brianne Jenner celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

In a career that already includes an Olympic gold medal and numerous accolades for club and country, Brianne Jenner describes this year as among the most impactful.

A 12-year veteran of the Canadian women's national team, she credits the rapport the group has achieved with shaping a standout campaign.

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"This season especially has been one of the most memorable for me, largely because of the environment we have on the team," she told CBC Sports. "There's a sense that everyone can be themselves, everyone can be comfortable, everyone can be a leader ― everyone has a voice. It took us time to really build the culture that we wanted."

That culture, she says, arose from the early days of COVID-19, during which athletes were forced to find new ways to improve while kept apart.

"I think the foundation of what we have here is just relationships: people really, genuinely caring about each other and wanting to see each other succeed," Jenner explains, noting that players took advantage of the restrictions to uncover other areas to develop.

"In the first year of the pandemic, we weren't able to do the things that we were used to being able to do, like being on the ice together, practising together, having camps. But what we were able to do was stay connected."

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It isn't only the atmosphere around the rink that's made the season memorable. Just days after Jenner claimed world championship gold, she and her wife welcomed their daughter, June.

"It's hard to put into words, but it certainly puts things in perspective," she said. "And there's nothing greater than coming home from a day at the rink and having her there waiting for me."

June won't be taking in the Olympics from the stands, but she has had plenty of opportunity to see her mom in action. Throughout the winter, the four-month-old became well-adjusted to life on the road.

"It was just so much fun to have her around the girls and around the rink," Jenner said. "She travelled a lot in the first couple months of her life, following us on a few road trips, and it's just been the greatest couple months."

Family and friends will be unable to attend the Games, where a "closed-loop system" will govern interactions. Heading into a Winter Olympics unlike any before, Jenner takes comfort in knowing that she and her teammates are well-practised in embracing uncertainty.

Adversity a part of team's identity

The 30-year-old alternate captain expects the group to lean on the resilience they've gained over the past three years, and they have no shortage of experiences to draw from.

Before a December COVID-19 outbreak within the squad led to game cancellations and a revised pre-Olympic schedule; before the 2021 world championships were twice postponed and before they were cancelled the year prior; before the 557-day span between national team games, there was already ample material.

"I think we've just become adept as an entire group at dealing with adversity and not letting it affect us ― in fact, using it as a strength," she said. "It's sort of become a part of our identity really, dealing with adversity."

Jenner points to the dissolution of the Canadian Women's Hockey League in March of 2019 as the first roadblock of the sequence. Canada's worst-ever world championship performance, a bronze, followed two weeks later, though Jenner emphasizes the learnings that tournament provided.

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That growth-oriented perspective comes as no surprise to Canadian assistant coach Doug Derraugh, who also coached Jenner at Cornell University.

"She's just a really cerebral person," Derraugh said. "Someone who thinks before she speaks, and somebody who also approaches the game that way."

Jenner adapts to playing on wing

Going into her third Olympics, Jenner remains a top-six mainstay, as she has been for the better part of a decade. This season, however, she's shifted from her natural centre position to the wing, where she's become a steady presence on Canada's top line. She was alerted to the move in the lead-up to the world championships last August.

"I was really excited by it," she said. "I think it's fun, at this point in my career, having a new challenge."

Jenner figures it had been seven years since she last played wing, but the success was instant: she excelled in the role, embracing the opportunity to spend more time on the puck and lead the rush. By the end, she'd finished second in tournament scoring.

Derraugh credits her seamless transition to her constant desire to improve. Ahead of the tournament, Jenner regularly stayed late on the ice to fine-tune areas of her game that had been in less demand at centre, such as work along the boards to facilitate breakouts.

Her willingness to focus just as diligently on her weaknesses as her strengths has always set Jenner apart, Derraugh says, as has her genuine investment in those around her.

When she gets to Beijing, Jenner says experiencing the event together will be the highlight.

"I know there's so many exciting things around the Olympics beyond the actual hockey," she acknowledged. "But for me, I'm most excited for the opportunity to play with this group and to make Canada proud."