Olympic hockey champions join wounded soldiers


April 16, 2014 (ISN) – Olympic women’s hockey team captain Caroline Ouellette and goaltender Genevieve Lacasse are joining wounded Canadian soldiers on an expedition to the magnetic North Pole.

Ouellette and Lacasse will be among the 53 soldiers, civilians and guides on next week’s fundraising journey organized by True Patriot Love, which provides physical and mental support for injured military personnel when government programs fall short.

Montreal’s Ouellette and Lacasse, from Kingston, Ont., won an Olympic gold medal at the Sochi Olympics in February. Canada mounted a stunning comeback to beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime.

Their Arctic trip will test the hockey players’ limits in a different way.

“We do push ourselves out of our comfort zone in workouts and stuff, but this is something that’s really out of our comfort zone,” Lacasse said. “It makes us really uncomfortable and I think that’s what makes it so great. We can really grow from it.”

They’ll meet their team members Friday in Ottawa before flying to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, for three days of preparation.

Their trek begins Tuesday, when they’ll be flown to King Christian Island and dropped off about 125 kilometres from their ultimate destination, which is the Isachsen Weather Station.

Magnetic north is where a compass needle points and about 1,300 kilometres south of the geographic North Pole, according to The Canadian Encyclopedia.

Magnetic north moves because of changes in the earth’s magnetism and its exact location is often debated. Isachsen Weather Station is situated at 78.9 degrees latitude.

Ouellette, 34, and Lacasse, 24, will spend 10 to 11 days skiing with backpacks and pulling sleds of gear and supplies. They’ll camp in 24-hour daylight and temperatures dropping below minus-25 at night.

“We have two dogs with us. They’re our guards against polar bears,” Lacasse said. “They sleep outside and I guess if anything comes near the tents, they freak out and the guides have guns.”

The group will be picked up May 2 at the weather station, which has a working runway.

“I think my physical conditioning will be OK. It’s more being able to cope with the cold and being on skis,” Ouellette said. “I’m certainly not as comfortable as I am on skates. They told us with everything we pull, it’s almost like walking.”

They’ll be part of a diverse group of corporate CEOs and soldiers injured while on duty. The latter have prosthetic limbs, post-traumatic stress disorder and other combat-related injuries.

Business leaders from companies such as Goldman Sachs, Great West Life, Morgan Stanley, Transcontinental and Scotiabank will be paired with the dozen soldiers on the trip.

The fundraising goal of the expedition is $1.5 million to adapt software that helps treat PTSD. About 92 per cent of that target has already been raised, according to expedition director Hilary Coles.

One example of True Patriot Love’s work was buying a vehicle that was retrofitted and adapted for a driver with prosthetic limbs. TPL staged an expedition to Everest Base Camp and the 6,189-metre Himalayan summit of Island Peak in 2012.

“Some of the feedback we received after the first expedition was people wanted the opportunity to adventure in their own back yard,” Coles said. “We took it seriously to find something that would give us the opportunity to celebrate our country while we were also celebrating our soldiers.

“The mission of True Patriot Love is really to bridge the civilian world with the military world. If you take these civilians and wounded soldiers, they don’t speak the same language, they don’t necessarily live the same day-to-day life, but by putting them out of their comfort zone, it’s an opportunity for everyone involved to grow and learn more about one another.”

This trip is close to Lacasse’s heart. Her father, Major Eric Lacasse, served in Afghanistan and is currently stationed in Israel until September. Her brother Alexandre and his wife Jenn are also members of the Canadian Forces.

Canadian team veteran Hayley Wickenheiser intended to go on the trip, but withdrew to mend a broken foot. Ouellette took Wickenheiser’s spot and invited Lacasse.

“She forwarded me the e-mail and said ‘is this something you’d be interested in?’ I didn’t even read the full e-mail,” Lacasse said. “I was like ‘yep, I’m in for sure.'”

Neither Ouellette nor Lacasse have been to Canada’s Far North. They are women who know how to push beyond their limits. But this trip is unlike anything they’ve ever experienced before, which is why they want to do it.

“It’s going to be a great mix of people who have incredible experience in the military,” Ouellette said.

“I feel often as athletes we’re seen as heroes for what we do when in fact they are truly risking their lives to defend our country. I’m not necessarily pro-war, but I have the utmost respect for what they do. I know some of them have been through incredible adversity.”

Ouellette and Lacasse will participate in a hockey game in Resolute Bay, population 220, before heading further north. Among the complicated logistics of the trip is an important decision for the hockey players: Do they take their gold medals when they strap on their skis?

Ouellette doesn’t want the extra two pounds in her backpack, but Lacasse isn’t sure she can resist the chance to have her picture taken with her medal in a unique location.

“I think it would be so awesome to bring it up there and get that picture,” she said. “I don’t think many people can say they’ve taken a picture with their gold medal at the magnetic North Pole.”

A documentary film crew will accompany the group, which will also carry a mapping camera for Google.

“Google maps have never mapped out the street view,” Lacasse said. “This big camera backpack I think weighs 44 pounds so everyone is going to take a turn carrying that for a little bit. That’ll be cool.”


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