The list of players in the modern era compared to Bobby Orr is very short. The two most prominent names are Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey, Stanley Cup champions who were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2004.
The third member of that very short list, Geraldine Heaney, is about to join them in the Hall.
Whereas Bourque and Coffey became two of the most decorated players in the NHL, Heaney made her mark at a time when women's hockey players weren't supposed to skate like the boys.
"I started at a time when a lot of girls weren't playing. I was the only girl playing with my brothers. At the time, I never thought only boys played hockey. As a kid you don't care," said Heaney, who will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 11. "I would always be going to the rink and asked my dad, 'How come I can't play?' At that time the girls weren’t allowed to play with the boys. So he looked for a team for me and I had to play with girls four or five years older."
By age 13 Heaney began playing with the vaunted Toronto Aeros women's club, a team she would play with for almost two decades. As she developed her style as an offensive defenseman always looking to jump into the rush, she won Ontario provincial championships at every level. Her incredible run with the Aeros included four national championships and 15 provincial titles in 17 years. At a time when the women's game still was developing, Heaney was establishing herself as a titan. But her most iconic moment on the ice, and perhaps the most historic play in the history of women's hockey, still was around the corner.
The world came calling for Geraldine Heaney in 1990 when Ottawa hosted the first IIHF Women's World Hockey Championship. And it was in the championship game against the United States that Heaney scored what forever will be known in the women's game simply as "The Goal."
Joining the rush with a world title on the line against the Americans, Heaney made a quick move around the opposing defenseman before flipping the puck over the diving goaltender. Moments after releasing the shot Heaney was sent flying through the air Bobby Orr-style by the goalie's poke check. That goal would clinch the world championship for Canada and remains arguably the most iconic play in women's hockey history.
"It really was that moment that kind of put [women's] hockey on the map. It brought some legitimacy to the game," longtime Canadian national team member Cheryl Pounder said. "I remember watching players like Geraldine Heaney and thinking one day I'm going to be there. It was really them that pioneered the game for so many and that goal, looking at it today, really is remarkable. Gerry was a big part of the growth of the game."
The goal instantly made Heaney an icon in her sport. The highlight was listed among numerous year-end lists of top plays and Heaney even was invited to the NHL Awards, where she presented Bourque with the James Norris Memorial Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.
That goal was just the beginning for Heaney. The 1990 title was the first of seven she would win as a member of Team Canada. In that time she also was named the tournament's top defenseman twice, in 1992 and 1994. But the biggest moment for Heaney and her sport would come in 1998. And for one of the first times in her already illustrious career, it would come with some real adversity.
OLYMPIC DISAPPOINTMENT AND TRIUMPH
When women's hockey became an event at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Heaney and her Canada teammates finally received the opportunity they had been waiting for their entire lives: A chance to compete against the best in the world for Olympic gold.
With Heaney at the helm Canada had been a juggernaut in the international game, but the United States proved to be an upstart in the 1998 Olympic tournament. The Americans first grabbed Canada's attention in round-robin play, scoring six straight goals in the third period to win 7-4 and finish first in their division with a 5-0-0 record.
Canada earned their rematch three days later in the gold-medal game. After trailing 2-0 early in the third, Heaney assisted on a goal by Danielle Goyette that cut the U.S. lead. But an empty-net goal by the U.S. would ice the victory and deliver gold to the Americans. The feeling of that loss would stay with Heaney for some time.
"Playing with Canada we dominated right up until 1998. The games were always close against [the United States], but we always ended up winning. I think it was a bit of a wake-up call not coming home with that gold medal," Heaney said. "For Canadian hockey, and for the individual players as well, we didn't want them catching up. We had to keep improving to get better."
Canada would get an opportunity to exact revenge on the United States at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, but the road to redemption would not be smooth for Heaney. Leading up to her second shot at Olympic gold she lost her uncle Seamus, who died just four months before the Games. During the holiday season preceding the Olympics Heaney's mother also became very ill. Heaney, who was 34 at the time of the Salt Lake City Games, sustained a serious knee injury the summer before the tournament, imperiling her chance at making the Canadian team.
But Heaney worked her way back and learned the day before she was scheduled to fly to the Olympic Opening Ceremonies that she indeed would be on the team. After experiencing so much in so little time leading up to Salt Lake City, Heaney again provided leadership and skill from the back end as Canada earned the gold medal with a 3-2 win against the United States in the championship game. Heaney dedicated the medal to her late uncle.
"This was really going to be her last chance. Because of the injury the coach wasn't sure if she was a liability. Just how great she played despite being injured and having to wear a brace and being at the tail end of her career, she was just amazing," teammate Cassie Campbell-Pascall told NHL.com. "I think that was one of the most amazing moments in my career, just watching her get her gold medal. Someone of that generation getting an opportunity to experience it was pretty cool."
THE FINAL HONOR
In a career that has seen her capture every distinction there is, Heaney's legacy finally will be cemented with her enshrinement in the Hall. Her induction will make her just the third female player to earn that honor, along with Angela James and Cammi Granato, who blazed the trail with their induction in 2010. The only question anyone has left regarding Heaney is, "What took so long?"
"When I first went in I had Gerry there as one of my guests and friends. I just think she should have been coming in with myself back then anyway," James told NHL.com. "I think it's awesome that the Hockey Hall of Fame is starting to induct more women. I don't think they could have gone wrong with their choice in Geraldine Heaney."
Today Heaney's hockey journey has come full circle. After spending six years coaching at the University of Waterloo, Heaney began coaching youth hockey in the Toronto area. The opportunity to coach children, including her daughter, has further sparked the fire of one of hockey's great competitors.
"I love it. I coach my daughter, I do a lot of teaching and power skating with boys and girls at every level," Heaney told NHL.com. "For me to come back now and teach girls the game I grew to love, I'm having a blast with it. I don't need to win. I've won enough. It's about the kids and seeing them improve and seeing how far they can go."
And no matter how far those kids go in hockey, Heaney's legacy in the game will remain intact, especially after she has her name called Nov. 11.
"She played in a sport that went through a huge developmental stage. It is where it is today thanks to players like her," said Ken Dufton, a longtime coach with the Aeros who coached Heaney for more than 20 years. "When I used to give talks in the mid-80s, I'd ask [girls] who their role models were and they were all males at that time. When they started playing in the first Worlds and the first Olympics, all of a sudden their role models were all females. And Gerry's name was at the top of the list."