Author’s Note: To be transparent, I know Sami Jo Small. She has been incredibly kind to me and I consider her a mentor and a friend. However, at the same time I have tried to be as honest and unbiased as I can be in my review of her autobiography. Luckily, but not surprisingly, I did not have to face this potential conflict of interest since Small’s book is an important intervention and fantastic contribution to women’s hockey literature and history.
The athlete autobiography as a genre tends to center around inspirational stories of success or overcoming adversity. In short, it is a pedagogical and didactic genre more so than the sport fiction genre. More than this, I often find athlete autobiographies to be deeply disappointing. Athletes have a reputation, or story, that exists before we even pick up their books, and this can cause problems as they don’t want to write against their public persona. So it’s common for athlete/authors to be too nice and ignore the conflicts that are bound to exist in a hyper-competitive environment, to not explore moments of vulnerability or tragedy that would conflict with their image, to avoid moments of introspection, or to make their autobiographies more like personal treatise’s on their greatness, masculinity, or the ‘good ol’ days’ of their sport. In essence, one of the central questions of the genre is how do you write an autobiography that is not simple publicity and self-promotion? Sami Jo Small’s The Role I Played is one of those rare autobiographies that answers that question and tells an interesting story that has not been written before while doing so.
Small’s book focuses on her three Olympics cycles with the Canadian Women’s Hockey Team from 1998-2006 where they won two gold medals and a silver. However, the book revolves around a seemingly paradoxical premise, which is what helps make it so interesting: the intertwinement of being an Olympian and being disappointed. To be clear, I am not saying that Small is a disappointment, she is the furthest thing from it, but that throughout the book Small details her disappointments (primarily her struggle to win the starting goalie position, especially for the Olympics). See, Small was the third goalie for two of those Olympics (1998, 2006) and then was the backup goaltender for the gold medal game of another Olympics (2002). So despite Small being an amazing goaltender and an integral part of each team she was on, she only has one gold medal since the Olympics did not award the women’s third goalie a medal until 2010 despite awarding medals to the third goalie in men’s hockey goalies (Small addresses this in her book). As the title suggests, The Role I Played follows Small’s search to find her role on teams where she is often not the starter and the conflicted feelings of wanting to be a leader on the ice in those big games but instead being called on to be a leader off the ice that makes such big wins possible. This is a book more about struggles than successes, and just as much about woes as wins.
Small writes openly and honestly throughout the book. It is a joy to read behind the scenes stories about some of the most dominant Canadian players of all time—from a humourous (but sad) squirrel incident to an surprisingly dramatic and bloody team triathlon to the simple little habits of players such as Meghan Agosta doing her hair the night before a big game because she doesn’t like it curly. It is also thrilling to read about iconic games (such as the Canadian women’s 2002 gold) from a player who was a part of that game rather than see these games on the screen. However, despite the excitement of reading about these games, my favourite moments in the book were perhaps the quiet, and often tragic, moments that Small tucks in between her recounting of games. Such as when Small learns she will likely not start the 2002 gold medal game while at a team dinner with family and looking across the room at Kim St-Pierre and wondering, “Does Kim know?…Does she seem different? Is she happy? I can’t tell” (165) or Small trying to not let her roommate Jennifer Botterill sense her disappointment at not being selected to start the gold medal game and the ensuing moment they share (179-180). Or in one of my favourite, and most heartbreaking, lines in the book when Small is writing about Kim St-Pierre and Charline Labonté (two of the best goalies in Canadian history and two teammates that Small had to battle for the starting position with): “They are both extremely nice people and perhaps, had we met under different circumstances, we likely would have become best friends” (321). The book details Small’s role on the team, but it also, often implicitly rather than explicitly, details how being an Olympian complicates the roles athletes have to play off the ice and the difficulties of maintaining relationships with those who don’t understand high-level competition or even with your own teammates. It is in the small moments in which this book truly shines. The little human moments where these athletes, despite all their training to focus on the competition, cannot help but be overcome by emotions.
Women’s hockey stories tend to exist orally, and so Small’s book does the important work of helping record some of that history. The Role I Played is important as both a history book and an autobiography, but more than this Small’s book is simply a great book and a great read. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in hockey, women’s hockey, the Olympics, women athletes, or just a good autobiography. I will leave you with a quote from Small’s brilliant Epilogue, “We need to uncover the stories of women who toiled away in obscurity and went on to dominate the leagues of their time and prove that women could play all along” (327).
Sami Jo Small’s book can be purchased from the ECW website.