Winning without adversity is no fun


Danièle Sauvageau, O.C.

Sports coach and professional speaker

Danièle Sauvageau’s passion, instinct and leadership were instrumental in the Canadian women’s hockey team winning gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. As general manager and coach, she transformed a fear of losing into an absolute desire for victory, a radical turnaround that enabled her players to achieve their Olympic dreams. She retired from the RCMP in 2018 after a 32-year career with the RCMP and Montreal Police, which included time working in undercover narcotics investigations. She was elected to the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 2008. She was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2013.

I asked, “Can I help?”

I remember, as a 12-year old girl, going to the rink in Saint-Eustache with my two brothers. My mother sent me because she knew I loved playing hockey too and there was no organized hockey in Deux-Montagnes where we lived. We said we were there to play hockey but I was not allowed to play as there was no girl’s hockey. So, I asked, “Can I help?” and my life as a coach began.

You can open doors when you have self-confidence

Growing up in Deux-Montagnes, there was a big municipal park where the kids would go to play soccer and softball and to swim. My parents told me later every time there was a game or an activity, I ended up being the leader. I was never afraid of the unknown. I was never afraid to take charge. If someone said “no”, I would just wedge my foot in the door and try and open it a little bit more. You can open doors when you have self-confidence and you believe in yourself. Self assurance helps you influence events.

Leadership is like a bet on other people

I was supporting a women’s provincial team on the bench when the coach was suspended because of an argument with the referee. They turned to me and asked if I would be the coach. I said, “Sure, why not?”.

My style is not aggressive. I love managing people – whether I am a hockey coach or a police officer. I lead people by asking them the right questions. My happiest moments, such as winning gold at the Olympics, are when I see the team members perform at their highest level. Leadership is like a bet on other people and when you win the bet there is no greater feeling.

“You have two strikes against you – you are a francophone and a woman”

I grew up as a French speaker in a municipality where it was mostly English. When I graduated as an RCMP officer in Regina, I was posted to British Columbia. The first thing they told me was “Well, you have two strikes against you – you are a francophone and you are a woman”. I remember saying in my head “So what?” It just means I have to plow the way for others.

My mother lost her mum when she was four or five and I grew up watching her sacrifice opportunities in her life. In a lot of ways, she taught me to try everything even when people thought the opportunities were not open to women or to francophones.

Winning without adversity is no fun

My resiliency comes from not knowing any different; not knowing I was not supposed to be there. In the gold medal game at the 2002 Olympics, the referee gave us eight penalties in a row. We played 26 minutes short-handed. Somehow, your resiliency kicks in and you work harder to overcome the obstacles. Winning without adversity is no fun.

The CBC invited me to join the French version of Hockey Night in Canada, La Soirée du hockey, as a colour commentator. I did it for two years and it was hard – a lot of people said I did not have the experience. I did not have any friends internally and I considered quitting. Once I started though, the negativity was just another barrier to overcome.

I have been involved in women’s sport for 35 years. I thought things would have changed more by now. It takes time – you need patience and belief – and often, it is not you but others who will see the results. There was a time when the only person watching women’s hockey was the Zamboni driver because we were playing at midnight. Now I look in the stands and see lots of young girls with Les Canadiennes jerseys. So, change is happening, slowly.

I do not believe in positive thinking so much as positive action

There are still elements of technical coaching, even at the Olympic level, but as the coach, I create an environment where people find a way to be their best. When you are in a position of leadership you have to recognise each team member’s role and your own role. You are not a player; they are not the coach. I am interested in the psychology of the game – players on both teams, the other coaching staff. In fact, I wanted to be a psychologist before I got into policing.

I do not believe in positive thinking so much as positive action.

As a leader, you will not be able to explain all your actions, because sometimes you make gut decisions. Other people might take a different action or make a different decision. That is the life of a coach or leader. Some of the time you are working on your own so you have to be confident in yourself and your ability to make the right decisions under pressure. It was the same thing as a police officer. At 22 years old, they give you your tools to go to work, and they say good luck.

It is not like policing when you might be facing a life-threatening situation

There is some stress coaching a team at the Olympics, though it is not like policing when you might be facing a life-threatening situation. This perspective helped me handle big moments behind the bench.

Whether the people you lead are hockey players, police officers or corporate staff, your job is to give them have the right tools, the right training and the right support to make the best decisions.

Policing taught me to always prepare for the unknown

Preparation is key. When I do not know what is going to happen, I prepare for the worst possible outcome. If a player gets injured, I need to have thought about how to replace them straight away, because the game moves so fast. Policing taught me to always prepare for the unknown.

In order to take care of others you have to take care of yourself too. You have to be physically, mentally and emotionally fit. You have a critical role to play; you have to see, read and feel the game, take decisions and react based on what is in front of you. If you look after yourself you are better able to look after others.

The number one value I seek is loyalty

I have to make sure I recruit people with the right DNA. Who can I count on to make the best decisions in the moment, when the pressure is intense?

I look for players who believe in our vision and people who are loyal. The number one value I seek is loyalty. We may not know each other, we may not like each other, but when we are under pressure, are you going to be there for me and am I going to be there for you? Is there trust between us?

With trust, you can disagree with our preparation and you can bring your own ideas to the table. At the end of the day though, players have to be OK with some decisions being outside their control. When I am recruiting, I avoid people who don’t get this, who complain a lot, or who react badly under pressure.

The culture of a team is more important than the skill level. You can have the most skilled players in the world but if they do not gel, they are not going to be able to perform together. Differences should be a strength, when they are managed properly.

The first level of leadership is doing good for others

At the top, you need humility. In order to get to the next level of leadership, you may have to try different ways of doing something and being willing to risk failure. There is a big difference between being afraid to lose and trying to win.

The first level of leadership is doing good for others. You invest time and trust in others so, when you need them, they are there for you, the organization or the team.

To be a successful leader, you need to have courage, and be willing to take responsibility and be determined.

As the leader, I recognise when people do not belong on my team

What I fear most is when a member of my team does not understand that if I am hard on them, it is because I believe in them and not the opposite. As the leader, I recognise when people do not belong on my team, even though they are wonderful players. I often say we all flowers, and you maybe do not belong in this situation – you need more sun or more rain, whatever. When people do not understand my intention is to do the right thing, that is where my fear lives.

This fear drives me to be thoughtful about communication. It does not change what I communicate; may be the way I communicate. What is the best way to present something? Am I speaking to the right people? Is my message getting across? Am I encouraging people in the right way at the right time, so they can make their best decisions?

Collaboration is key for success

Sport helped me be a better leader in the police force. Collaboration is key for success in both. The best teams I have worked with in sports and policing, and now in the business world, are smart and there for each other. The team is there to succeed and the success of individuals is important too.

As a coach and as a police officer I have tried to live a life of service. I am still serving the game in one capacity or another. It started when I was not allowed to play organized hockey as a young girl, with my brothers. I could have walked home and done something different with my life. Instead, I asked how I could help. And that desire to be of service has shaped my life and my career.

You get the performance you prepare for

I put a lot of focus on the process, not the result. There are so many things you can not control. You might not get the result you want, but you get the performance you prepare for.

The gold medal in 2002 opened the door to my heart and made me want to continue to work with young athletes. I want to create moments of high achievement for them, like watching the Canada flag being raised, as many times as possible.