Church "heartbroken" to step down as coach of women's hockey team

Associated Press

CALGARY - That the decision was painful was evident, as Dan Church was in tears by the end of the conversation.

His stated reason for abruptly resigning as head coach of Canada's Olympic women's hockey team was he felt there were doubts about his ability to coach the team to Olympic gold in February.

"If there isn't confidence in what I'm doing, I need to step aside and let the team move on," Church told The Canadian Press in a phone interview Thursday.

"I'm heartbroken, to be honest, about the whole situation. I'm sad I can't finish this journey."

Church didn't specify whether it was players or Hockey Canada who doubted his competence as a coach.

"Just discussions I'd had over the last few days made that apparent, in some meetings I'd had with leadership," Church said. "I think it was just difference of opinion on the direction we were headed.

"In the end, I just decided if I'm getting in the way of where the team needs to go, I need to step aside and let them continue on in the process."

That bombshell comes less than two months before the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Church was expected to announce his 21-player Olympic roster before the end of December.

Church left Calgary on Thursday morning without addressing the players and flew to Toronto, where he lives with his wife Regan. Canada hosted the U.S. women in Calgary at night.

"I was in shock. It was unexpected," veteran forward Caroline Ouellette said. "I appreciate Dan. I always have. I have a lot of respect for him. I think he's done a lot of great things for our team since 2011 when he took over as head coach."

The Canadian women will attempt to win a fourth straight gold medal in Sochi after victories in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Church coached Canada to a women's world title in April, 2012. The 40-year-old from Toronto was rewarded with a two-year contract to coach for the 2013 world champions and the Winter Olympics.

When asked if Hockey Canada tried to convince him to stay or reverse his decision Thursday, Church replied, "No, they did not."

"Dan has decided to resign for personal reasons," Hockey Canada's chief operating officer Scott Smith said at news conference Thursday. "He's put a tremendous amount of work into this and we respect the decision he's made."

Assistant coaches Danielle Goyette, a former national team player, and Lisa Haley will co-coach until a new coach is named, Smith said.

"Time certainly is of the essence," Smith said. "This decision came upon us in the last few hours and we're going to react as quickly as possible.

Melody Davidson coached the Canadian women to Olympic gold in both 2006 and 2010. She became Hockey Canada's female head scout and serves in a general manager's role for the national team.

Davidson was adamant Thursday she would not step into the breach.

"I stepped down in 2010 for a reason," Davidson said. "I left because it was time to be off that bench and I'm comfortable in the role I can play off the ice."

"I think there's some real good candidates there who can help us and bring a different voice than mine. I'll definitely support whatever direction we go in, but it's not going to involve me as part of the coaching staff."

The reality is the pool of Canadians who have experience coaching international women's teams is shallow.

Davidson says she could identify with Church's feelings as she nearly quit when Canada lost the 2009 world championship final to the U.S. prior to the 2010 Olympics.

"The Olympics is overwhelming at times," she said. "Sometimes you get caught up in that. Maybe Dan couldn't feel he could envision something different."

Davidson didn't think Church was in over his head as head coach of the team.

"Definitely not," she said.

Haley says she did not question Church's decisions.

"In my opinion, Dan has done and said everything with the intention of this team winning a gold medal," Haley said. "I trusted his decisions all along when I've gotten the chance to coach with him over the years.

"He's gotten a lot of things right. Right now, what we want to do is trust this decision that this is what's best for the team and hopefully we can win him that gold medal."

Church and Davidson invited 27 women to try out for the Olympic team. They've been training full time in Calgary since August. Church cut forward Jenelle Kohanchuk and defenders Tessa Bonhomme and Brigette Lacquette in November.

Two more forwards and a defenceman will be released when the Olympic team in named.

The Canadian women lost 3-2 to the U.S. in the final of this year's world championship in Ottawa, but were on a three-game winning streak against their archrivals until Thursday night.

With Goyette and Haley behind the bench, Canada lost 5-1 to the U.S in the third exhibition game between the two countries this winter.

In their previous meeting at the Four Nations Cup in November, Canada doubled the Americans 4-2. Canada went 4-0 to win that international tournament.

The women were 10-11 against male teams in the Alberta Midget Hockey League and have played 31 games since September.

"All I can say is I gave 100 per cent effort in everything I did this year," Church said. "I worked tirelessly.

"I put in all the hours to be successful and I believe we were moving in the right direction as a team. We had reached all the benchmarks at the times we had wanted and winning all of our games against the U.S., winning at Four Nations.

"While we had struggled a little bit with the midget results, we'd played with a lot of injuries to our lineup and a really tough November schedule.

"It's disappointing to not feel there's confidence in what you're doing."

He's coached the York University women's hockey team for nine seasons. His father died of cancer in January at age 70, but Church said his decision was not related to health or family issues.

Church coached the Canada's under-18 women's team to a world champoinship in 2010. He was an assistant coach to Ryan Walter on the women's team that took silver at the 2011 world championship.

With Church behind the bench at the 2012 world championships in Burlington, Vt., Canada suffered a worst-ever 9-2 loss to the U.S. women to open that tournament, but rebounded with a 5-4 overtime win in the final for the country's first world title since 2007.

The U.S. has won four of the last five world championships.

Canada and the U.S. will meet again Dec. 20 in Grand Forks, N.D., Dec. 28 in St. Paul, Minn., and Dec. 30 in Toronto.

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