In one of the most surprising moments of the 2016-17 women’s ice hockey season, Hayley Wickenheiser announced her retirement. Considering that Wickenheiser hinted at the possibility of competing in the 2018 Winter Games, which would have been the sixth of her career, the decision to hang up her skates was unforeseen, bringing an abrupt end to a career destined for entry into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Wickenheiser’s announcement was carried out subtly on social media, where she stated, “Dear Canada. It has been the great honour of my life to play for you. Time to hang em up!! Thank you!”
The all-time leading scorer in the history of Canada’s national women’s ice hockey team with an astounding 379 points (on the strength of 211 assists, complemented by 168 goals), she was the last active player on the national women’s team that was born in the 1970s. Along with former teammates Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette, they also hold the rare privilege of having won four straight Winter Games gold medals.
Wickenheiser also established herself as a two-sport star, competing in women’s softball at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games. Although Canada did not gain a podium finish at the event, there was a unique hockey connection on Canada’s roster. Playing alongside her was Sommer West, who would compete during the CWHL’s inaugural season and coach the Toronto Furies to the Clarkson Cup title in 2014. Of note, Wickenheiser’s last major championship in her career was the Clarkson Cup, winning it with the Calgary Inferno at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre in 2016, the first Clarkson Cup to be contested on NHL ice.
Despite the fact that there was no press conference or farewell tour with the Inferno, the final light of Wickenheiser’s career was not extinguished with just a whimper. There was an opportunity for a celebratory good-bye, providing her with the appropriate closure that helped bring her career full circle.
Having called Calgary, Alberta, home for over two decades, which would be the site of some of her greatest moments, Wickenheiser was a fan of their rival club, the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. Mesmerized by the superhuman efforts of All-World talents such as Mark Messier and Wayne Gretzky, the all-time leading scorer in NHL history, it was the template upon which she drew inspiration to achieve her own hockey dreams.
Although Wickenheiser’s early years in the game involved playing with boys, which meant she was not always welcomed warmly, her perseverance helped make the game more accessible for girls in the future, which saw the number of registered female players in Canada register more than five fold over the course of two decades. Despite those difficult early years, there was a karmic reward for Wickenheiser when she was invited to the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers rookie camp in 1998 and 1999. She would also gain the chance to play with HC Salamat, a competitive men’s professional team that competes in Division II hockey in Finland.
Of note, it was a milestone moment in Wickenheiser’s career when she and Gretzky were competitors at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games, which signified the first women’s ice hockey tournament and the first men’s ice hockey tournament with NHL athletes. When Canada would win its first women’s ice hockey gold at the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, Gretzky and former Oilers captain Kevin Lowe (who were both in an executive capacity with Hockey Canada) were the first to congratulate her when she came off the ice. Adding to such a magical milestone in her career was the fact that she would be recognized as the Most Outstanding Player at the 2002 Winter Games.
Taking into account that former Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson is currently serving as CEO of Oilers Entertainment Group, the parent company of the Oilers, he showed a great touch of class by inviting Wickenheiser to participate in a pregame ceremony. Prior to the Oilers taking on the Calgary Flames in another installment of the Battle of Alberta, Gretzky surprised the home town fans, including a jubilant Wickenheiser, with his presence at centre ice, graciously calling her “the female Gordie Howe.” Along with Oilers captain Connor McDavid and Flames captain Johnny Gaudreau, Wickenheiser and Gretzky were part of the ceremonial faceoff.
Although a significant aspect of Wickenheiser’s legacy was forged through the Winter Games, which also saw her take the Athletes Oath on home soil at the 2010 edition of the Games in Vancouver, what she accomplished at the university and semi-professional levels were just as important. In addition to being a member of the Triple Gold Club for Women (not officially recognized by the IIHF), which consists of Winter Games gold, IIHF World gold and the Clarkson Cup, there were many other championships that defined such a masterful career.
From the outset, her legend definitely first took roots in 1991, when she helped Team Alberta captured the first gold medal in women’s ice hockey at the Canada Winter Games. Just three short years later, while starring with Bantam AAA boys teams in Calgary (gaining MVP honors with the NW Bantam AAA Bruins), she would gain the opportunity to skate for Canada at the 1994 IIHF Women’s Worlds, becoming the youngest player in Canadian history to don the Maple Leaf, competing at the tender age of 15.
With the Calgary Oval X-Treme, a predecessor to the current Calgary Inferno, she would claim a championship with the club in the former Western Women’s Hockey League. Coincidentally, Bart Doan, the husband of speed skater Catriona Le May Doan, who captured multiple gold medals at Salt Lake 2002, was one of the assistant coaches for the X-Treme. Adding to her hockey hardware, she would help the X-Treme capture the Esso Women’s Nationals, which was recognized as a Canadian national championship.
Playing for head coach Danielle Goyette, who was Wickenheiser’s teammate at Nagano 1998, Salt Lake 2002 and Torino 2006 (where Wickenheiser also gained Most Outstanding Player honors), with the University of Calgary Dinos, she would help the club win the Golden Path Trophy in 2012, awarded to the victor at the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national title.
In that same year, she was recognized as the university’s Female Athlete of the Year. The previous year, she would win the Brodrick Trophy, awarded to the CIS Most Valuable Player in women’s ice hockey, while also gaining recognition as an Officer of the Order of Canada. Of note, the addition of the Golden Path Trophy would make Wickenheiser the only woman in Canadian hockey history to win said Trophy, the Esso Women’s Nationals, the WWHL title, Canada Winter Games gold and the Triple Gold Club recognition.
With a Dinos team that was filled with players between the ages of 18 and 23, Wickenheiser, who was studying medicine at the university, was 33 at the time. Proving that the world of hockey can indeed be a rather small one, Russian national team member Iya Gavrilova also played for the Dinos, holding symbolic meaning as the game looks to continue to close the competitive gap between North America and the rest of the world.
In reflecting on Wickenheiser’s glory days with the Dinos, it was nothing short of surprising that she did not pursue the path of NCAA hockey during her teens, something that many of her teammates on the national team, most notably Jennifer Botterill attending Harvard, would pursue.
Focused on bringing to reality her dreams of becoming a doctor, Wickenheiser’s priority shall be on her medical studies. While the game will always remain close to her heart, immortalized as an icon in sporting Canadiana, one project ensures that her presence at the rink will endure. Among such projects includes Wickfest, an international female hockey festival, which helps raise funds for young girls who cannot afford to play the game, which was hosted for the seventh time in 2016.