Team Canada hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser hangs up her skates
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.
Canada’s Hayley Wickenheiser retires as the country’s women’s career-leading scorer.