A NEW LEAF
Wickenheiser takes up position
TORONTO The Toronto Maple Leafs realized how much of an effect Hayley Wickenheiser was having as guest coach at their June prospects camp, how youngsters heeded her advice and the respect she was accorded.
While the idea of her one day breaking into the NHL’s boys’ club in hockey operations was idle chatter at the time, Kyle Dubas was already formulating a move. On Thursday, the 32-year-old Leafs general manager hired the former national women’s team star as assistant director of player development.
In a further move, the club hired Noelle Needham as a regional scout for the U.S. Midwest.
“We’re looking for the best people, period,” Dubas said, though he added “research shows the more diverse your organization, the better your decision making, the better your operation in general. If you’re only hiring white males — and I say this as a white male — you’re probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization can go, can think and how it can develop.
“In this case, I thought Hayley was certainly the best candidate because of her expertise in hockey, her experience in being an elite player at every level. At our development camp, getting to know her and talk to her, I just felt the way she thinks about hockey and life could be a massive benefit to player development, our program in general and all players who are in it.”
Wickenheiser, 40, will be working under Scott Pellerin, who was elevated Thursday to senior director of player development, and director Stephane Robidas, who also was promoted.
It’s likely the move also received a push from president Brendan Shanahan, who is trying to create a modern identity for the franchise, and head coach Mike Babcock, who shares Saskatchewan roots and a national program history with Wickenheiser.
“What the Leafs are doing is forward thinking,” Wickenheiser said. “I’m pretty confident I can help players get better or have them understand what it takes to get better.
“Every time you step on the ice, whether it’s with a player or a coach, you can always take something away and it’s about being able to translate that to a player, to help him or her get better with their game.”
Wickenheiser grasped some tenets of player development from her friendship with skills coach Darryl Belfry, another member of the Leafs staff who likely influenced Dubas.
As Dubas spoke from the Mastercard Centre, skating coach Barb Underhill was at ice level working with arrivals at Toronto’s camp. Last week, the Leafs added Meg Popovic as director of athlete well-being and performance to their growing sports-science team.
Wickenheiser will be based near the University of Calgary, where she is working on her medical degree and can monitor the three Western Hockey League prospects Toronto has in the area.