Hayley Wickenheiser says hockey prepared her for a career in medicine
In her new book, Over the Boards, the Hockey Hall of Famer shares a lifetime of lessons from the ice
This story was originally published on Oct. 8, 2021.
Dr. Hayley Wickenheiser already had a lot on her plate in the few months before the COVID-19 pandemic, when she began contemplating writing a book.
She had just begun a career in player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs and was in the midst of completing a medical degree. She was an elected member of the International Olympic Committee Athletes' Commission. On top of it all, she is a parent. Completing a manuscript hardly seemed feasible. But then the pandemic changed everything.
"In a span of 24 hours, life as I knew it — with Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as was just in my last few months of medical school — completely stopped," Wickenheiser said.
Suddenly, Wickenheiser's memoir Over the Boards: Lessons From the Ice became real.
"I thought, well, maybe some of the lessons that I have learned through sport would translate to helping people or giving people some inspiration and hope in a time where I think we all kind of need a little bit of that," Wickenheiser said in a feature interview with As It Happens host Carol Off.
Growing up with grit
Whether or not readers like hockey, they're sure to find Wickenheiser's commitment inspiring. And she's adamant that the attributes that made her a great hockey player are transferable ones. After all, she learned them from a farmer.
"I grew up with a couple of really good role models," she said. "My mom and dad, number one. And then my grandpa, who was a pretty old-fashioned farmer and believed that hard work and doing hard things could pave the way for bigger success."
Sometimes hard work meant dangerous work.
"He used to put me in some precarious situations on the farm, like riding horses bareback and getting bucked off … or picking rocks and throwing bales while running alongside the loader in the field."
But those experiences would prepare Wickenheiser for the adversity that followed her as a girl in a sport dominated by boys — and by their sometimes-hostile parents.
"I've experienced a lot of things in the game. There isn't a word that wasn't said to me through the years. There isn't a change room or a boiler room or a bathroom stall I haven't changed in," Wickenheiser said. "I cut my hair very short, so I would look like a little boy and I would get to the rink early, try to hide in the bathroom stall, put my feet up on the toilet seat when I was changing ... and then run through the lobby as fast as possible."
What I'm most proud about today is that a little girl can walk into any rink in this country with a bag and a stick over her shoulder.- Hayley Wickenheiser
Wickenheiser said she was grateful to have the Olympics as a goal to strive for as she grew up. She's filled with admiration for the women who came before her, who played solely for the love of the game, she added.
"What I'm most proud about today is that a little girl can walk into any rink in this country with a bag and a stick over her shoulder. And really, people are not looking twice."
Golden moments and devastating defeats
Today, Wickenheiser is the proud owner of five Olympic hockey medals — four gold and one silver. But on bad days, it's the silver she remembers best.
"It was devastating," she said, of the Canadian women's defeat by Team USA in the hockey final at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
"There I was, standing on the blue line with the silver around my neck, staring across at the American side with the gold around theirs. And I was thinking to myself two things: [First,] I'm not going to let them see me cry … and then the second thing I was thinking was, I never, ever want to feel this way again."
Wickenheiser said her Olympic depression took about a year to shake.
"It was the most stinking, horrible feeling, mostly because at that time in my life, everything that I thought I was, was wrapped up in who I was as a hockey player. So if we were winning, I was a good person. I was successful. And if we were losing, then I was a total failure. I couldn't really separate the two."
Wickenheiser and her teammates would go on to reclaim that gold, and three more medals. But she says it wasn't their on-ice victories that mattered most. It was her personal victory over the self-loathing that followed the team's loss in Nagano.
More than the medals
Canada's hockey culture can be a blessing and a curse, Wickenheiser said. Because while the support is incredible, the pressure is often overwhelming too.
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"I, personally, felt like a failure. I felt like I let down the entire country. I was embarrassed to land in Canada. I remember I was like, 'I should just go home and never leave the house.' Those are the thoughts that I had."
Wickenheiser's memories of that Nagano loss are echoed by other Olympians like hurdler Perdita Felicien, who recently spoke about her devastating fall at the 2004 Olympics with As It Happens.
"It's unbelievable. It's unthinkable," Felicien said. "You've never seen yourself there, ever."
For Wickenheiser, the support of longtime coach Wally Kozak made all the difference.
"He gave me a note and it said, 'A gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you're not enough without it, you'll never be enough with it.' And I've kept that piece of paper in … my wallet at every championships and Olympics I've played since '98."
"Now I see that we're all so much more than whatever we do for a majority of our day, whoever we are."
Third time's the charm
Today Wickenheiser spends the majority of her days working in player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs and as a resident physician in a Toronto hospital emergency department.
Despite all the ways she says hockey prepared her for medicine, getting into med school still took three tries.
"It's a complete crap shoot. You don't often get in on your first try," she said. "The hardest part of medicine is getting in. Once you're in there, it just becomes hard work to get through it."
For Wickenheiser that hard work has been made even harder by the COVID-19 pandemic. But lessons from the ice have kept her going.
"A lot of the things that I did every day in sport, I was using every single day in medicine."
The parallels aren't always obvious to others, she said, but they're obvious to her.
"Medicine is absolutely a team sport. You learn very quickly as a resident that the nurses are your best friends, that you rely on them. They save your butt. Many times a day."
She said the lessons also extend to the importance of self-care, and the ability to accept constructive criticism.
"You're always failing forward in medicine … and I'm very good at that. And most athletes are because we live in a world where every day we go to work, someone's telling us what we're doing wrong more often than they're telling you what you're doing right."
Ultimately, Wickenheiser said, the same principles that made her an exceptional forward have the potential to propel anyone to their goals.
"Whether you're working inside a hospital like I'm doing on a daily basis or you're running a business or trying to manage kids at home while you're on Zoom. We've all had to … dig deep into our resiliency reserves and come up with different ways to adapt."
Written and produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.