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“GOING FOR GOLD”: BRENNAN SAULNIER AND HIS OLYMPIC SISTER

Saturday, November 23rd
“GOING FOR GOLD”: BRENNAN SAULNIER AND HIS OLYMPIC SISTER

Rush forward Brennan Saulnier is proud of who he is and where he is from. Whether its fondly talking about his home of Halifax, Nova Scotia, or loved ones that first sparked his interest in hockey, he has taken his roots with him everywhere he goes and used them as fuel to succeed in his hockey career. 

This includes his older sister, Jill Saulnier: a two-time World Champion silver medalist (2015, 2016) and bronze medalist (2019), and a 2018 Olympic silver medalist in hockey with Team Canada.

“Halifax is a special place for me. Growing up in such a die-hard hockey community with my sister, playing on the ice in the winter, out on the street in the summer, hockey has always been a major part of my life,” Brennan Saulnier said of his hometown roots.  “We had a lot of good influences growing up. My dad and my uncle played at a high level, and I had an older cousin play major-junior, so I worshipped the ground he walked on.  Dad would always build the rink for us in the backyard as well, and we always skated and played hockey.  

“I don’t think you truly appreciate where you grow up until you leave home,” Saulnier added. “You realize how other people grow up, and that being from a hockey community like Halifax is special.  Some of my best memories I have and best life decisions I’ve made were a result of where I’m from, like committing to play Division I college and turning professional. Nothing like that would’ve happened if I didn’t follow my passion and continue to play the game every year.”

A major staple of those memories come from his sister Jill, who is just a year and a half older than Brennan. Hockey has always been a major part of the glue that sticks these two siblings together.

“It’s crazy, Jill actually didn’t start playing hockey until after me,” Saulnier said with a smile.  “Girls just weren’t playing the game back then. She saw me playing mite hockey that my dad signed me up for, and saw me come back with a trophy, probably for participation, and loved that.”Before you know it, Jill got a pair of skates of her own, and thus began a long road for each Saulnier sibling, constantly serving as a partner and inspiration for each other.

“Being from an athletic family like ours, Jill picked up hockey right away. From there, we competed against each other every day in a healthy and supportive environment. There were a few bloody noses playing mini sticks in the basement, but it was amazing growing up with her. She’s a late ’92 [birth year] and I’m an early ’93, so we got to play together every second year growing up until she had to transition to girl’s hockey full time.”

When that time came, Jill had to make a choice regarding her hockey career. If she was going to take it seriously and turn it into a career, she had to move from home. She left Halifax and played for the Stoney Creek Sabres and Toronto Aeros of the PWHL from 2008 to 2011.

“Jill moved away from home at 13 or 14 years old. None of her friends were doing that, and she was one of the first from Halifax to move for women’s hockey,” Saulnier recalled. “It couldn’t have been easy leaving home, mom and dad, her friends, and me, all to pursue a dream, and at that point a pipe dream to maybe play in the Olympics someday. I was able to draw inspiration from that and was fortunate to still be able to play at home. I had no excuse to not try my hardest and follow her example in the men’s game.”

From there, Jill’s career took off. She first represented her home nation of Canada in the 2008-09 season, appearing in five games in the U-18 World Junior Championships, finishing with a silver medal. In the next year’s U-18 World Junior Championships, she exploded with 10 points in five games and helped lead Canada to a gold medal finish. Ahead of the 2011-12 season, Jill committed to play NCAA hockey at Cornell University, and a parallel was in the works with Brennan as he continued to develop on his own.

“Back home, the main route to advance through hockey is the major-junior level,” Saulnier explained. “The Halifax Mooseheads in the QMJHL are in my back yard, and that’s who my cousin played for. The Mooseheads are practically the NHL for us. I was a late bloomer though, so I grew late and didn’t have much of a chance to play major-junior. While Jill was gone at school, these NCAA booklets and packets kept coming for her, so I naturally picked them up and started reading into it.”

That curiosity led to many conversations with Jill, who was enjoying an outstanding career at Cornell, and eventually led Brennan to follow in his sister’s footsteps. After he completed high school, Brennan, just like his sister, moved away from home to play junior hockey in the hopes of earning an NCAA hockey scholarship. After one season in the AJHL with the Fort McMurray Oil Barons, schools started to call.

“The first team that came knocking was the University of Alabama-Huntsville. They were all in, so I committed to them and went there for all four years of my schooling,” Saulnier recalled fondly.  “It was great development, on and off the ice. The experience helped me grow up and be an adult, on top of receiving an education and getting the opportunity to play the sport I love at a high level.”

Throughout all four years, Jill was an integral piece to Brennan’s college success.

“She played a huge part. When you go to college with a hockey player’s mindset, you’re there to go to the NHL,” Saulnier explained. “When difficult things came up in school, life, and hockey, Jill was always my first call.

“As my college career came to an end, I was starting to garner interest from professional teams. I attended Montreal Canadiens NHL camp after my junior year in 2017, and that let me see where the bar was set at. I decided to take a run at going professional and feel like I’ve landed in a great spot here in Rapid City.”

While Brennan was at UAH, Jill was playing professional women’s hockey.  After her 195-point career through four years at Cornell, she played in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League for the Calgary Inferno (2015-2018), and the Montreal Canadiennes (2018-19). With Calgary in her first season as a professional, she took home the 2016 Clarkson Cup Championship. Going to Calgary wasn’t just a move for professional hockey, but rather was one step closer to her Olympic dream.

“It was great to watch her get the opportunity to play pro in Calgary. One of the best parts about that was most of her Calgary teammates played on the Olympic squad,” Saulnier added. “She knew she had to have a big year there, and hopefully that would lead to her being centralized for a chance on the team. She’s a similar style to me, a grinder, and she knew she had work to do. She worked every day, won a championship, and I think that turned a lot of heads.”

Centralization is when the Canadian National Team narrows down their potential Olympic roster to 35 skaters. During centralization, Hockey Canada moves those 35 women out to Calgary in August on a full-time basis, and they train out of the Markin MacPhail Centre at WinSport’s Canada Olympic Park. Every day and every practice are an audition to crack the national team.

“From the outside looking in, Jill was always going to play in the Olympics in my mind,” Saulnier said sentimentally. “Centralization is when that grind started for her. My dad said she’d call every night, worried and anxious because every day is an evaluation. If you have a bad stretch of days, your dream might crumble right in front of you. For her to take that head on, all of that stress, and make her dream come true is really inspiring.”

That is exactly what Jill did. Prior to the beginning of the XXIII Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, she got the call. Jill Saulnier was officially representing Team Canada on the largest stage in international sports.

“I remember it like it happened yesterday,” Saulnier reminisced. “I was in school still. I told her when the call came, I wanted to be the first one to know. I knew when I got the call it was either going to be good news or bad news, because they just had their exit meetings. We were crying on the phone. It was such an amazing moment.”

Jill notched a goal and an assist in 5 games during the Olympics for Team Canada. She made it to the gold medal game against the archrival United States and finished with a silver medal following a shootout loss to the Americans. As much as he wanted to, Brennan couldn’t attend the Games, since he had unfinished business of his own to attend to at UAH.

“It was my senior year, and we were in playoffs. As bad as I wanted to be there, it just wouldn’t be right to pack up and leave the team,” Saulnier explained.  “It was our first year making playoffs too. When you spend four years with a group of guys, you have unfinished business. She knew that, and I can guarantee that if the roles were reversed, she’d want to stay in school with her girls and try to win a championship.”

Instead of making the trek to South Korea, Saulnier hosted a watch party with his teammates as he cheered his sister on, and even had some swag for the occasion.

“Pretty cool story, I was sent a game replica jersey of hers, so I wore that as my teammates, and I watched the game. Of course, the room was split down the middle,” Saulnier said with a smirk, “with the Americans on one side and the Canadians on the other.  It was so special to see her wearing that jersey on the biggest stage, go up against the US, and finish in a shootout, which is practically a coin toss. Seeing her compete and participate in the Olympics and win a medal was a proud day for my family.”

Jill and her silver medal are well traveled, constantly making appearances at ice rinks and cities across Canada. Her accomplishment has served as an inspiration for many young girls that have the same dream she once did of representing Canada in international competition. She’s targeting a return to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China in 2022.

Jill is 27 years old, so her future with the Canadian National Team remains bright for both World Championship and Olympic play in the coming years. However, her current focus is shifted towards securing a stable professional league for women to play in.

“Women’s hockey is going through a bit of a crisis in trying to form a league,” Saulnier said of the state of women’s hockey. “Once you’re done playing women’s hockey in college, there’s no viable, competitive league for these women to stay sharp in before international competition comes into the fold. Right now, there’s a hockey tour called the ‘Dream Gap Tour’ that’s a group of Canadians and Americans traveling to hockey hubs and putting on showcases for fans. They’re showing the world that they’re Olympic athletes, and they deserve a league that won’t fold.  It looks like they might be close to a resolution, which is coming at a great time. After the league is formed, they have a year of centralization, and before you know it, the 2022 Beijing Olympics are here.

“I couldn’t be prouder of my sister,” Saulnier concluded. “Between winning World Championship silvers, going to the Olympics, and now on the verge of creating a viable women’s professional hockey league, she’s accomplished so much and carried my family name throughout all of it. I think as you go through your life and your journey, you don’t realize how big your achievements are until later in life. She’s served as such an inspiration to me, and I can only imagine where her life and future accomplishments will take her.”

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