Team Canada hockey star Hay­ley Wick­en­heiser hangs up her skates

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE SPORTS - DONNA SPENCER CAL­GARY

When Hay­ley Wick­en­heiser sees girls drag­ging hockey bags into are­nas, she feels a sense of ac­com­plish­ment.

The nor­malcy of girls play­ing hockey is what she sweated, fought and shed tears for.

When Wick­en­heiser started play­ing 33 years ago, there were no girls’ teams. She played with boys and wasn’t al­ways wel­comed by play­ers or their par­ents.

“The great­est stride’s been made in the ac­cep­tance of girls play­ing the game,” Wick­en­heiser says. “Any lit­tle girl in this coun­try can walk into a hockey rink and no one is go­ing to think twice or look twice. There’s fe­male hockey change rooms in a lot of rinks now.

“I re­mem­ber when I was a kid, I hid in the bath­room and tucked my hair up so no one would know I was a girl. I just went through hell re­ally, to play. Girls don’t have to go through hell any­more to play hockey.”

The fact that fe­male hockey has ar­rived at this stage puts some sooth­ing balm on the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to end her play­ing ca­reer.

The coun­try’s ca­reer lead­ing scorer an­nounced her re­tire- ment Fri­day af­ter 23 years on the Cana­dian women’s team and al­most a dozen Olympic and world cham­pi­onship gold medals.

“Dear Canada. It has been the great hon­our of my life to play for you. Time to hang em up!! Thank you!” Wick­en­heiser posted on her Twit­ter ac­count.

Not only was Wick­en­heiser a star in women’s hockey when the game des­per­ately needed one, she changed per­cep­tions of what women are ca­pa­ble of in sport.

The 38-year-old from Shau­navon, Sask., told The Cana­dian Press in a some­times tear­ful in­ter­view she didn’t want to post­pone her en­trance into med­i­cal school any longer.

“It has been the great­est hon­our of my life to play for Canada,” Wick­en­heiser said. “I’ll miss it.”

The num­ber of reg­is­tered fe­male play­ers in Canada went from 16,000 in her first year on the na­tional team to al­most 87,000 to­day.

Bob Nicholson, who was Hockey Canada’s pres­i­dent and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer dur­ing most of Wick­en­heiser’s ca­reer, said she played a big role in giv­ing “girls the dreams that boys had.”

“Her record speaks for it­self win­ning so many gold medals, but in years to come, the big­gest mem­ory will be how she in­spired so many girls to play the game,” said Nicholson, now CEO of Oil­ers En­ter­tain­ment Group. “She al­ways was harder on her­self than any of her team­mates and pushed her­self to ex­cel­lence.”

Her for­ays into men’s pro­fes­sional hockey in Fin­land and Swe­den set new stan­dards on how much a woman can be pushed phys­i­cally. She played a com­bined 65 men’s pro­fes­sional games in Europe.

Her de­ci­sion to play with and against men wasn’t unan­i­mously sup­ported at home. Some fe­male team­mates be­lieved she should stay in Canada and help de­velop women’s leagues here.

But Wick­en­heiser made choices she felt would make her a bet­ter player, which meant leav­ing her com­fort zones.

She trained in her off-sea­sons with NHL play­ers, mak­ing head­lines skat­ing in Philadel­phia Fly­ers rookie camps when she was in her early 20s.

“I’m com­fort­able be­ing un­com­fort­able,” Wick­en­heiser said.

Hockey isn’t done with Wick­en­heiser. There will be op­por­tu­ni­ties for her to work in the game. She said she’s had dis­cus­sions with peo­ple in the NHL, but there are no con­crete plans yet.

A 5-foot-10, 171-pound for­ward with a heavy shot and cre­ative hands, No. 22 was the dom­i­nant fe­male player in the world in this cen­tury’s first decade.

Named MVP of the 2002 and 2006 Olympic women’s hockey tour­na­ments, Wick­en­heiser’s 379 ca­reer points for Canada – 168 goals and 211 as­sists in 276 games – will be dif­fi­cult to match.

The ac­tive player with most points is Meghan Agosta at 155 in 155 games.

Wick­en­heiser is one of just five ath­letes in the world – joined by re­tired team­mates Jayna Hef­ford and Caro­line Ouel­lette – to win gold at four con­sec­u­tive Win­ter Games.

JEFF MCINTOSH/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Canada’s Hay­ley Wick­en­heiser re­tires as the coun­try’s women’s ca­reer-lead­ing scorer.

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