Medals, accolades and records all line Hayley Wickenheiser’s hockey résumé, but when it comes down to it, leaving a legacy for generations to come is what matters most to the women’s hockey veteran.
With 23 years of playing for Team Canada under her skates, Wickenheiser’s most important takeaway is the fact that a girl hitting the ice with a stick doesn’t turn a single head anymore.
“I think progress and helping young girls into the game has something that I always felt was a responsibility I had,” said Wickenheiser, who recently announced she will be retiring from the sport and attending graduate school this fall to pursue becoming a doctor.
Winning Canada’s Hearts
Wickenheiser has been integral, to say the least, in changing minds and perceptions towards the female game, which in turn directly impacted participation numbers. But it certainly didn’t happen overnight. Wickenheiser says that the first time the changing culture really sunk in for her was right after the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
It was an intense affair with Canada looking to avenge their loss in the 1998 Olympic gold medal game in Nagano, the first time women’s hockey was introduced as a medal sport. Add in losses in their last eight matches against the U.S., and the pressure was on for Canada to bring it home. And they did. Canada beat USA 3-2 in regulation time, despite a controversial succession of eight power plays for the American team.
Then came the now-famous TV interview Wickenheiser had with Don Cherry after hearing the rumour that the U.S. team had walked across a Canadian flag on the floor of their dressing room. Fired up from the win she remarked, “now I want to know if they want us to sign it.” The win and that interview ignited Canada’s passion for the team and a newfound respect for its players.
“I knew we had reached a new level when we were driving across the border having won that gold medal. As we crossed into Canada and the first little town people recognized us. They were waving flags and cheering. As we got into Calgary, people were lined on Crowchild Trail honking. I knew at that moment we made it to a different stage. There was more than maybe just 100 people watching us play from then on. At that point the game was elevated,” said Wickenheiser.
And the Hatfield and McCoy’s battle between Canada and the U.S. was forged. Making the most challenging moments also some of Wickenheiser’s favourites, pushing her to be Canada’s all-time leader in games (275) and points (379).
“Oh, I always loved playing against Angela Ruggiero. As an American defenceman she was always matched up against me. She would trash talk and get up in my grill trying to throw my game off. It is a bit awkward now that we are both on the IOC athletes’ commission chair. I had to step back and be like ‘OK we can be friends now that we aren’t playing against each other,’” said Wickenheiser. “Still, there is a part of me that always feels that a tiny bit of that hate has to be there at some capacity. We played hard against each other for a long time, but it was always a good challenge that made me better.”
Learning from the Best
As a wily veteran of the national team, Wickenheiser jokes she could write a “scandalous” book with the stories she has of teammates and hockey. She also admitted that sometimes even those that inspire, need a boost.
“I was in an Olympic depression that didn’t seem to lift. After we lost the gold medal at the ’98 Olympics, Wally Kozak gave me a quote. He said a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you aren’t enough without it, you will never be with it,” said Wickenheiser. “From the time he gave it to me, I kept it in my wallet and would post it in my stall in the dressing room at a every championship.”
Kozak, a scout for Hockey Canada, and Wickenheiser forged a relationship as soon as she moved to Calgary at the age of 12. She first met him when he was coaching at a hockey school. As Wickenheiser’s parents were teachers like Kozak was at that time, they quickly became like family.
When Kozak had a massive heart attack in 2008 while coaching a Strathmore Rockies practice (who played in the now defunct Western Women’s Hockey League), Wickenheiser was at his bedside.
“We kept a vigil at his hospital bed and when he finally woke up, I was the first person he recognized because of our connection with hockey. Hockey is his passion and we share that. He was my mentor and helped me to the national team and while I was there. He knows the game so well and gave me so much insight and perspective,” said Wickenheiser.
Salt Lake, Vancouver, Sochi — all will hold special meaning to the retiring forward for different reasons, making it difficult to single out one Olympics over another.
“Winning at home in Canada, at Vancouver, was amazing. I thought it couldn’t get any better than that. Then there is Sochi. That, from a hockey perspective, was our miracle on ice with that comeback,” said Wickenheiser.
Adding to her Olympic medals are a Canadian Women’s Hockey League Clarkson Cup title, a CIS (U Sport) championship, seven world championship gold medals and playing men’s professional hockey in Sweden and Finland. Spreading her influence even farther, with now little girls in Europe looking up to her.
Passing the Torch
As the years rolled on, Wickenheiser stepped into the role of a leader of different sorts. Not one that was always counted on to score the big goal, but one that led with her words on the bench and work ethic on and off the ice.
That moment when Wickenheiser received the quote from Kozak would come full circle, whether she realized it or not, when Natalie Spooner joined the national team.
“In 2011, when I first made the team, I got to play on Wick’s line,” recalled Spooner. “I was pretty nervous and wasn’t playing my best. She looked at me on the bench and said ‘don’t worry what other people think, just play the game that you do and do what you do best.’ It really struck a chord with me. First of all, I thought she would be mad that I wasn’t playing well, but hearing her tell me just do the absolute best I can and she would be OK with that — it meant everything. I still remember that moment to this day and now when I go out on the ice I don’t worry what others are thinking.”
A positive message, the same kind that helped Wickenheiser, has stayed with Spooner.
“I guess it is like a mantra now. I just go back to that line, do the best I can and not worry about what people in the stands or anyone else is thinking.”
Spooner tried to express just how much Wickenheiser will be missed on the ice and in the dressing room.
“She has done so much for hockey that I don’t think another women’s player will have the same impact that she has had or will do as much as she has accomplished.”
While Wickenheiser leaves the game behind, she will continue to be a leader off the ice through the passion she helps ignite in the next generation of potential national team players.
“I think I can speak for an entire generation of female hockey players when I say that Wick’s impact on our careers was tremendous,” said national teammate Halli Krzyzaniak, who currently plays with the University of North Dakota. “Growing up, she was an idol for me. I used to save newspaper clippings about her and the national team and hang them on the wall beside my bed. She was a pioneer in women’s hockey and she helped pave the way for female hockey players today to have these amazing opportunities that weren’t there when she was growing up.”
Krzyzaniak said without Wickenheiser blazing the trail, female hockey players wouldn’t have the opportunities or respect they have gained today.
From idol, to teammate, and then assisting on one of the biggest moments of Krzyzaniak’s career so far.
“Wick was leading the rush and I jumped up as a defenceman. She hit me with a picture perfect drop pass that I was able to one-time into Sweden’s net,” said Krzyzaniak of her first goal in a Team Canada jersey. “It was a pretty cool experience for me to have her be in on that goal and made it even more special for me.”
Krzyzaniak remembers the first time she met her idol, right before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I was just completely in awe of her. To be that close to someone you look up to was surreal. It was so great for me as a player to be around her and see how passionate and dedicated she was. She prepared the same for an intrasquad game as she did for the finals of a world championships.”
The Legacy Lives On
Wickenheiser’s legacy will go back even further as she continues to grow female hockey through the Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival (more commonly known as Wickfest).
Seven years ago, a dream Wickenheiser had to build a hockey environment that focused not just on competition but also building players came alive. Wickfest has since grown to almost 2,500 players converging in Calgary over two weekends to play in a hockey tournament and learn from other Olympians and professionals on training, leadership, nutrition and more.
It all started with a conversation Wickenheiser had with former Canadian alpine ski racer and Olympian ‘Jungle’ Jim Hunter. A fellow Shaunavon, Sask. native, Hunter, his brothers, and Wickenheiser often trained together over the summer. That evolved into an epic three-day bike ride they would meet up to tackle every year.
“We had a conversation about how to leave a legacy because you know you can’t play and compete forever. We were sitting around the campfire after a day’s riding and started talking about how to build a legacy that would impact the game that meant so much to me. Wickfest was created over that campfire,” said Wickenheiser.
Over 23 years, the impact Wickenheiser has made is immeasurable. Always the competitor, a leader, an inspiration and there is still another description for her — humble.
“I have to say thanks to so many great coaches and people that have helped me along the way to get to a platform where I could give back. Really all the teammates I had, the fans and everyone who believed and cheered for us, without them nobody would have cared what I have done and I wouldn’t be here talking to you.”
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