Sami Jo Smal, left, and Billy Bridges strive to make each other better on and off the ice.
Billy Bridges’ slapshot has been clocked at 80 miles an hour . . . one-handed.
That’s a lot of heat for a goaltender to face.
But for Sami Jo Small, putting on her pads to help her husband practice is just one way she’s assisted him on his way to Sochi.
Bridges, a veteran forward with Canada’s National Sledge Team, admits he was excited the first time Small – a three-time Olympian – invited him to one of her goaltending drills.
“I thought I had a pretty good shot and was quite confident,” remembers the Summerside native, who’s competing at his fourth Paralympic Games. “Until an hour and a half had gone by and not one single puck had gone in.”
Soon Small was joining Bridges at his practices, serving as a stand-up goalie for him and his teammates. Then in the lead up to Vancouver in 2010, Bridges brought home a beginner sled. Suddenly Small was sitting with her head in the middle of the net.
“Those guys are so good, I basically feel like a pylon,” she laughs. “I can’t sit forward – they like me to sit sideways like Steve Cash, the American goalie. I think they’re just working more on positioning.”
The couple first met in 2006 when the National Women’s Team and National Sledge Team were honoured at a ring ceremony for their Olympic gold medals in Torino. Their paths would cross again the following year at the IIHF World Women’s Championship in Winnipeg. The sledge team was there to do a demonstration between periods of the final, and Small’s friend, Cherie Piper, introduced her to Bridges.
She soon invited him to help at a Right to Play event. Their first date was watching a Stanley Cup playoff game at a restaurant. And when Small first came to watch Bridges play – at the 2008 IPC Sledge Hockey World Championship – he admits he may have been a little more on edge. “I was so nervous playing in front of such an amazing athlete, who happened to be my girlfriend,” he laughs.
The passion Bridges played with then is still evident every time he takes to the ice. And it’s what Small loves most about watching her husband play.
“You can tell he loves it out there and it’s something he was always meant to do, to play sports and be part of a team,” she says. “I can just see that big smile he gets after he or one of his teammates has scored a big goal.”
Small, who plays for the Toronto Furies of the CWHL, modestly claims she doesn’t talk strategy with her husband – “I’m biased, obviously, but Billy is one of the best players in the world. There’s nothing that I’m going to tell him about his game that will affect how he plays” – instead, preferring to focus on the intangibles.
“I think how I try to help him is encouraging him to try to be the best teammate he can be. That’s probably what we talk about the most over dinner.”
Bridges, however, is quick to credit his wife, citing how she’s helped him with everything from strategies for shooting and puck placement to the mental side of the game.
“The best advice she has given me has been to strive to be a little bit better today than I was yesterday,” he says, “and not to think of the overall goal of the season, but to break down the season into little goals each day and each week.”
Since the couple has been together, Small has seen Bridges experience the highs and lows of sport. She watched him win gold at the 2008 and 2013 world championships; she also sat in the stands in Vancouver when the national team finished a disappointing fourth at the Paralympics.
“To see your loved one just so disappointed is really hard,” she says. “I think what helped us get through it is that I’ve been through a lot of those moments, too. Just him knowing that I’ve been there and lived it, if he needs to blow off steam or talk or not talk, I can be there.”
Having dealt with a major disappointment of her own four years earlier – as the third goalie in Torino, she didn’t receive a medal – she was able to help Bridges recognize that time makes things better. “It took me a long time to get over that, to realize I was still a part of the team and I still had these amazing experiences and adventures,” says Small. She wanted her husband to know it was OK to be upset and to show those feelings. “You can’t let it affect your daily life too much, but you don’t need to hide your emotions.”
Bridges admits he probably still hasn’t gotten over Vancouver, but dwelling on it will only hold him back. “Sami taught me to use it as a learning tool to become a better athlete.”
After the 2010 Games, the couple opened their Mississauga, Ont., home to a new addition. They bought a puppy and named her Sochi. “It was a way to move on and start looking forward right away,” says Bridges.
Small now works as a professional speaker, which frees Bridges up to focus on his game and his studies (he’s in his second year at the University of Toronto, studying English literature), but has put her job on hold to join her husband in Russia.
Bridges will be a competitive beast at the Games – Small laughs that her husband “hits everybody and everything that moves” – but off the ice that intensity melts away.
It’s a lesson Bridges taught the admittedly ultra-competitive Small on a kayaking trip last summer.
“For Billy it was just an amazing day to spend with his wife,” says Small. “He was pointing out the turtles and the fish, and I just wanted to race him the whole time. I think that’s the difference in our personalities, and I think that’s why we do so well together.”
Written by Wendy Graves. Published with permission of Hockey Canada.