Hockey

High hockey IQ and hard work: How Brianne Jenner became a leader in Canadian women's hockey

More than a decade into her professional career, Brianne Jenner has a new mountain to climb as one of the leaders with Ottawa of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), a league she helped build from scratch as a board member with the players’ association. 

Jenner has a new mountain to climb with PWHL's Ottawa team, in a league she helped build from scratch

Canadian female hockey players celebrate a goal against the USA during second period IHF Women's World Hockey Championship gold medal hockey action in Brampton, Ont., on Sunday, April 16, 2023.
Brianne Jenner will be one of the leaders on the PWHL Ottawa team, in a league she helped build as a board member on the players' association. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

It was a perfect pass from Brianne Jenner destined for the stick of her long-time teammate, Canadian captain Marie-Philip Poulin, that ended a nearly 10-year golden drought for the national women's team at the world championship in 2021.

A few months later, at her third Olympic games, Jenner brought home a gold medal and was named tournament MVP after scoring nine goals, tying the Olympic record in the process.

And a few months after that, Jenner scored the only two goals needed for Canada to win a second consecutive world title, the first time the Canadian team had accomplished the feat since the early 2000s.

"I think Jenner's hockey IQ and the way she thinks the game is incredible," said long-time teammate Emily Clark. "She makes passes that I don't think anyone else in the building sees but her."

After more than a decade on the senior national team, the 32-year-old Jenner has a hockey resume that few can match. 

Beyond the gold medals and big goals, those who have played with and against her describe a career built on hard work and quiet leadership, on top of a sixth sense on the ice that's hard to teach. 

It's a type of playing style that's more method than flash, a game that might not always pop to viewers at home, according to Liz Knox, a goaltender tasked with trying to stop Jenner's shots for years in the now-shuttered Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL). 

"She's just out there to try and do her job and make the players around her better, which is I think a great compliment when you look at the calibre of athletes that she's had in her circle," Knox said.

Now, Jenner has a new mountain to climb as one of the leaders with Ottawa of the Professional Women's Hockey League (PWHL), a league she helped build from scratch as a board member with the players' association.

Ottawa general manager Michael Hirshfeld used one of his three pre-draft free agent slots to sign Jenner, along with Clark and goaltender Emerance Maschmeyer, earlier this month. 

Four women and a man stand on a stage, holding a wooden hockey stick branded for the PWHL's Ottawa franchise.
Brianne Jenner, second from left, poses with PWHL Ottawa teammates Emily Clark, Emerance Maschmeyer and Hayley Scamurra, along with GM Michael Hirshfeld. (Heather Pollock/PWHL)

"We believe they have an incredible work ethic, compete level," Hirshfeld said after the three signings were announced. 

The GM has said he'd like his team's identity to be rooted in gritty and dynamic play. 

It's that first word — grit — that comes to mind when Maschmeyer thinks of Jenner.

"She's reliable," she said. "I feel like she's always doing the right thing at the right time."

Love for hockey started on outdoor rink

Jenner's hockey journey began 30 years ago on a soccer field in Oakville, Ont. Her father was a teacher and hockey coach who would flood the field, turning it into a big outdoor rink. Jenner was on skates by the time she was two.

By age three, she had a stick in her hand. Jenner loved being on the outdoor rink so much that her mother would have to drag her inside to change her diaper.

As she got older, it turned into a love of competition and being part of a team. She loves the structure of being a professional athlete, of doing the right things.

A Canadian hockey player with her back to the camera has her hand raised to give her teammates a high five.
Brianne Jenner was named to the senior national women's team at the 2012 world championship. Three years later, she was named an assistant captain, a role she's held since. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Jenner went on to play at Cornell University, where she was twice named a finalist for the Patty Kazmaier Award as the best female player in college hockey.

After being cut from the 2010 Olympic team, Jenner made the senior national team at the world championship in 2012. She immediately started soaking up as much as she could from veteran players like Tessa Bonhomme, Gillian Apps, Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette, who was the captain of the first Olympic team Jenner played on in 2014.

"I learned a ton from her," Jenner said of Ouellette. "It was really evident watching her how much she cared about her teammates and how professional she was in her craft and how she carried herself. There's so many that I would kind of just observe and learn from."

Named assistant captain of national team in 2015

A year after her first Olympics, Jenner was named an assistant captain with the national team, a role she's held since then.

"I think honestly there could be a book written about Brianne and her leadership," Clark said.

It's her demeanour and consistency, the ability to know what you're getting from her every game and practice, that makes her stand out, according to her Ottawa teammate.

It's also her care for her teammates. Jenner became a mother two years ago, but Clark said she's played that kind of role in the locker room for much longer.

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"I think just that genuine care to make sure everyone is good, feeling comfortable, feeling confident, and I think just the respect that she gives every single person," Clark said.

A decade later, Jenner feels she's still learning about leadership. She's always trying to pick up things from the people around her to try and become a better leader.

"I know that there are certain ways that I lead naturally and certain ways that I don't and that I have to improve on," she said.

Taking a stand

Four years ago, Jenner and the Calgary Inferno lifted the Clarkson Cup, awarded to the CWHL champions, for the final time, not knowing they'd be the last players to do so. Soon after, they learned their league would be shut down.

More than 100 of the world's top players formed the Professional Women's Hockey Players' Association (PWHPA), vowing they wouldn't play professional hockey until they could make a sustainable living doing so.

A woman passes a female hockey player a championship trophy on the ice.
In this 2016 file photo, former Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL) commissioner Brenda Andress presents Calgary Inferno captain Brianne Jenner with the Clarkson Cup. Jenner's Inferno also won the final Clarkson Cup title in 2019. (Canadian Press)

The association was run by a board of players, which included Jenner.

"The greatest kudos should go to our players that stuck together and continue to trust in us and believe in us," Jenner said. "But I just kind of always recognized it was a privilege to be in that position and to do my best to kind of put forward what would be the will of the players."

She ended up sitting on the players' committee that negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the PWHL's ownership group, securing benefits like a housing stipend, maternity leave, and a minimum league salary, things that didn't exist when Jenner started playing professional hockey.

At the bargaining table, Jenner was a stoic leader for the players, someone who brought a wealth of knowledge about where the women's game stood before the CWHL folded, according to Knox, who also represented players in bargaining.

"She's all business when she's got her sights set on a goal, which is a really admirable quality to have," Knox said.

'A long road'

For Jenner, the best moment with the PWHPA came on a Zoom call one evening in late June, when their board was finally able to present the details of the collective bargaining agreement that players ultimately ratified.

"It had been a long road," Jenner said. "I think when we look back at this time, we'll think, boy, we accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. But for the players that did sacrifice, these were long years."

A few weeks later, Jenner signed her contract with PWHL Ottawa. But for players like her, who spent the first decade of her career in a league that didn't pay the bills, the fight was always going to be more for the next generation's benefit.

She's glad her two-year-old daughter, June, will get to see that women can rise to the same level as men playing professional hockey, whether she decides she wants to play hockey or not.

But Jenner said it's just as important for boys to see, too. Her wife is due to give birth to twin boys any day now.

"That's going to make them better people as well and better citizens."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. You can reach her at karissa.donkin@cbc.ca.