Canadian women's hockey team captain Hayley Wickenheiser donned her cap and gown over a decade and a half after starting classes at the University of Calgary.
The 34-year-old from Shaunavon, Sask., was on a short leave from the Olympic team's boot camp in Penticton, B.C., to receive her Bachelor of Kinesiology with distinction on Monday.
"It was a 16-year process so I'm very excited to be getting it today and walking across the stage," Wickenheiser said following the morning ceremony. "It was actually a more emotional moment than I thought it would be."
Wickenheiser played her third season with the Dinos women's hockey team this past winter.
Canada's all-time leading scorer intends to pursue a medical degree in the future. She's already written the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Wickenheiser says she'll apply to medical schools in September when she will also be centralized with the Olympic team in Calgary.
The women will train full time from August until February's Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, which will be Wickenheiser's sixth Olympic Games.
The triple gold medallist was among the graduates singled out by University of Calgary president Elizabeth Cannon in her opening address Monday.
"A true icon of Canadian sport and valuable member of our Dinos women's hockey team," Cannon said. "The list of Hayley's accomplishments in hockey, in academics and in community service is long and impressive."
Wickenheiser has played on the national women's team for almost two decades. She's also played in the men's pro leagues in both Finland and Sweden during her career.
Demands of hockey
The demands of hockey and raising her son Noah made school take a back seat in her life until after the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and Whistler, B.C.
"Obviously I started with the Olympic team in 1998, going to different Olympic Games and my son being so young, it was almost impossible to do both and do well," she said. "I always wanted to go back and finish my degree and decided after the 2010 Games I would go back and do it.
"I needed to get it finished with and at some point you just had to jump in and go for it."
Wickenheiser has 115 points, including 50 goals, in 53 career Canada West conference games. She also compiled two goals and 16 assists in 12 conference playoff games for the Dinos.
Calgary won the Canadian Interuniversity Sport women's hockey title in her second season when Wickenheiser was named MVP of the championship tournament. She was also named CIS player of the year in her freshman season.
Wickenheiser was coached by Danielle Goyette, a former Canadian teammate and an assistant coach of the 2014 Olympic team. Former national team forward Kelly Bechard will coach the Dinos while Wickenheiser and Goyette take a year off from university to centralize with the Olympic team.
Wickenheiser maintained a grade-point average of 3.60 or better to graduate with distinction.
"It's been a great experience, better than I really expected," she said. "The whole Faculty of Kinesiology, the staff, the profs, they've been really understanding of my schedule and the time frame I have with the national team."
Wickenheiser has two years of playing eligibility remaining with the Dinos. She hasn't made a decision yet what her hockey future will be post-Sochi. Acceptance to medical school will factor into her decision.
"I don't know that I'm ready to retire after Sochi, but a lot will depend on what happens in the next year with the applications and other things in my life too," she said.
Her Canadian teammates are currently in the middle of a three-week boot camp in Penticton. The players have Sundays off, so Wickenheiser flew to Calgary on Saturday night and was to return to Penticton later Monday.
Family in attendance
Her parents Tom and Marilyn attended Monday's ceremony as did 10-year-old Noah, the son of Wickenheiser's former partner Tomas Pacina. Wickenheiser adopted Noah when he was a toddler and she and Pacina were in a relationship.
Her parents and her son witnessing the awarding of her degree was important to Wickenheiser.
"My parents are both schoolteachers and I remember when I was 10 my mom went back to finish her teaching degree at the University of Regina and left us at home for a long time," Wickenheiser recalled. "We had to manage without her.
"I just remember going to the convocation and watching her graduate and how exciting that was. For my son, to be able to see that and see how important education is, I think that's the biggest reason why I came back here."
Wickenheiser returned to university as a "mature" student. She recalls taking notes on a pad of paper while her classmates tapped theirs on their computer. On Monday, Wickenheiser was one of many in a sea of proud, happy graduates in the auditorium.
"When you look around, see everybody else and their faces and the stories that people have when they walk on the stage, you realize a lot of people sacrifice a lot to get a university degree education," she said. "It's not something that's easy to get or is it handed to you.
"I'm just so grateful to have this opportunity and that I was able to do it despite the lifestyle that I've had."