Hayley Wickenheiser announced her retirement from hockey a few days ago and while it is ‘easy’ to admire all of her achievements on the ice, be it in the form of medals, championships, goals, or points, her importance to hockey in general goes far beyond the numbers.
Wickenheiser first came to my attention in 2003 as she signed a professional contract to play in the Finnish Division Two. Even before her debut in Finland, Wickenheiser had put up an impressive run of titles from World Championships and Olympic games (four world championship titles and an Olympic Gold from 2002 and silver from 1998). Obviously, with her playing came massive media attention and her every move and stride was covered to great detail in the Finnish press, which gave me, albeit living in the Netherlands at the time, a chance to follow her progress.
Wickenheiser was highly touted during the 1998 Winter Olympics where Women’s hockey made its debut and not wishing to take anything away from the game, it really put women’s hockey on the map. I remember that in school the ’98 Nagano Olympics drew such a following, particularly in hockey that on many occasions teachers would just put the games on, whether it was the men or women playing.
What makes Wickenheiser’s career extraordinary is that she remained a part of the Canadian team from age 15 (1994) all the way to her retirement. It speaks volumes of Wickenheiser’s talent and leadership, considering how the game has evolved. In fact, such was her talent that Bobby Clarke, team Canada’s GM at the Nagano Olympic games invited Wickenheiser to participate at the Flyers rookie camp in 1998 and 1999, a feat only a handful of players have achieved since.
Wickenheiser’s accolades include being named on The Hockey News’ Top-100 influential people in hockey in 2011, but again, her determination and drive should place on a list of top-100 athletes world wide. Her achievements can often be over-looked, but what she has achieved and persevered is truly astonishing and worthy of the recognition.
For me, Wickenheiser and her achievements go beyond hockey. She serves as an inspiration to always better yourself and challenge yourself to do more. Her time playing in the men’s leagues shows the commitment needed. Her tenure at the Finnish leagues were not merely a PR stunt, but a legitimate pursuit to compete at a higher level and against (perceived) tougher opponents. Yes, there were the worries of whether she would be able to compete in the more physical men’s game, but Wickenheiser put up 4 points in 12 appearances for HC Salamat at the Suomi-Sarja level and further 7 points in 11 play-off appearances the same year.
Part of her hockey legacy will be that of a pioneer that has placed an ever increasing focus on the women’s game. Whether it was watching Olympics in the UK, Finland or the Netherlands, all the broadcasters always highlighted the importance of Wickenheiser to the Canadian national team, but also to hockey in general.
If Nagano Olympics were the international show-case for women’s hockey, it was Wickenheiser who legitimised it, if the women’s game ever needed legitimising. She was the first female player, whose name you could throw into a conversation and people would know about her and her achievements. I do not wish to sound sexist, but Wickenheiser and her drive did the same for women’s hockey that Gretzky did to hockey and the NHL on an international level. Both names are synonymous to hockey and deservedly so. Hayley Wickenheiser’s legacy in hockey will be immortalised by her achievements, but also for serving as an inspiration for generations of both women and men in hockey.