NHL

Hayley Wickenheiser 'changed the game' on her way to Hockey Hall of Fame

Hayley Wickenheiser will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. Not bad for a girl who used to slink into the arena, hoping to go unnoticed, to play a game that belonged, at the time, to boys and men.

Saskatchewan girl who didn't want to be noticed became player impossible to ignore

Hayley Wickenheiser celebrates after Canada's gold medal victory at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, one of four she won in her 23-year career. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

On snowy Saturdays in Shaunavon, Sask., Hayley Wickenheiser sat mesmerized in front of the television any time her beloved Edmonton Oilers appeared on Hockey Night in Canada.

During intermissions, she shot into the back alley on skates and over to the rink to reenact the lessons from the previous period.

She paused at the imaginary blue line, just like Wayne Gretzky. She rushed end to end like Paul Coffey, even wearing skates several sizes too small, just as he did. She unleashed her shot on her off foot, just like Mark Messier. 

And with the wicked prairie wind at her back, or even in her face, she pretended to skate as effortlessly as Glenn Anderson.

On Monday, Wickenheiser will join her childhood hockey idols in the Hockey Hall of Fame. She headlines a 2019 class that includes Guy Carbonneau, Sergei Zubov, Vaclav Nedomansky, Jim Rutherford and Jerry York.

WATCH | Vaclav Nedomansky's defection paved way for many NHLers:

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Not bad for a girl who used to slink into the arena, hoping to go unnoticed, to play a game that belonged, at the time, to boys and men.

"I remember having a lot of anxiety going to the rink," says Wickenheiser, 41. "I didn't want to deal with people going, 'Oh, there's the girl.'"

Wickenheiser after receiving her Hall of Fame ring on Friday in Toronto. (Getty Images)
In terms of getting into her hockey gear, she said, "I was a home-changer, or I would change in a bathroom stall or wherever they would put me. I had a lot of stress."

With her hair cut short to avoid detection, she routinely hustled to the dressing room to join the boys on her team — pretending to not hear the verbal barbs along the way.

"When I got on the ice, I felt free, because no one could touch me there," she says. "It was my safe place. I felt like I was good. I belonged."

Did she ever — much to the chagrin of some parents of kids on the opposing teams.

"I think it was a lot of abuse because I was a good player from a young age," she says. "So I did attract a lot of attention to myself. I heard and saw a lot of stuff that I would hope today a little girl playing with boys wouldn't have to go through."

'Her slapshot was her forte'

From a young age, Wickenheiser displayed a tenacity that serves her to this day as a student in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary, and as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

On Monday, she will become only the seventh woman granted entry to the Hockey Hall of Fame, joining Cammi Granato, Angela James, Geraldine Heaney, Angela Ruggiero, Jayna Hefford and Danielle Goyette.

"When Hayley came into the game, her slapshot was her forte," says Goyette, who played on Canada's first line with Wickenheiser. "The women's game had never seen a shot like that before."

In 2017, Wickenheiser retired as the all-time leading scorer for Canada, with 168 goals and 211 assists in 276 games over 23 years. Her resume includes four Olympic gold medals and seven world championship titles.

Teammates say Wickenheiser's physicality - as well as her slapshot - changed the women's game. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Player comparisons are difficult, but it's fair to call Wickenheiser the Mark Messier of women's hockey.

"She was a power forward with a great shot," Goyette says. "She could put the puck in the net and make plays, but, at the same time, she was so physical. She was not afraid to go in the corner, get the puck and do something with it.

"She changed the game. Before she came along, the women's game wasn't nearly as physical."

Wickenheiser joined the national team at age 15. She was in Grade 10 at the time and roomed with veteran Margot Page, a Grade 10 math teacher.

"Those women were super gracious and very good leaders for me," Wickenheiser says. "The players of that era were working full-time jobs. I saw how fit they were and how they would train at odd hours. I think that really impacted my career."

'This is a full-circle moment'

Wickenheiser won a silver medal with Canada in 1998 in Nagano, but it arguably wasn't until the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City that she became a household name. 

Burned in our collective memories from those Olympics are her epic rink-side rant from those Games — "the Americans had our flag on the floor in their dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it"  — and her victory lap with son Noah cradled in her arms.

Wickenheiser was joined by her son Noah after defeating the U.S. to win gold at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

"I remember stepping off the ice [in Salt Lake City], and I was the first to open the dressing room door," she says. "And there's Wayne Gretzky and [fellow former Oiler] Kevin Lowe standing there.

"I actually just took a second and thought, `Wow. This is a full-circle moment.' I grew up idolizing these guys, and there they were standing in our room that day."

The following year, Wickenheiser became the first woman to play full-time professional men's hockey at a position other than goalie. Suiting up for Salamat, a club in Finland's third division, she collected two goals and 11 points in 23 games.

"I'm proud of that experience," says Wickenheiser, who also played men's hockey in Sweden later in her career. "I wanted to see how far I could go and how high I could play."

In 2007, Wickenheiser became the first female to play professionally with men in a forward position when she joined Arboga of the Swedish men's third division. (Associated Press)

To that end, the five-foot-nine, 176-pound Wickenheiser often trained with NHLers, including Martin Gelinas, now an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames.

"She would do everything that we did, plus more," Gelinas says. "We used to go on the ice and practise. And obviously there's the size difference between females and males, but she would be in the battles. That's who she is. She wanted to be the best. She became the best, because she put in the time and the effort. She paid the price."

'The foot was bad'

At the 2006 Turin Olympics, Wickenheiser somehow potted five goals and collected 12 assists with a fractured elbow. Then, at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, she registered five points in five games skating on a broken foot.

"The elbow wasn't bad — it was just freeze and go," she says. "The foot was bad. I had two surgeries after those Olympics, including foot reconstruction surgery.

"The foot didn't bother me that much in my boot. I just had to modify my training. You manage those things."

These days, Wickenheiser is a master of managing her time between the rigours of medical school and her work for the Maple Leafs. Over the next three days, she plans to take a moment or two to breathe and reflect on the magnitude of the occasion.

"The Hockey Hall of Fame is not something that I dreamed of, growing up," she says. "Quite honestly, I saw it as an older, white male group that only allowed in NHL players.

"Now I see the Hockey Hall of Fame as something much more inclusive. I guess it just shows the evolution of the game and how far hockey has come.

"So, what I'll be thinking of when I stand there is all the women who came before me who pushed hard to have this happen one day."

About the Author

Vicki Hall

Freelance writer

Vicki has written about sports in Canada for more than 15 years for CBC Sports, Postmedia, the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal. She has covered five Olympic Games, 10 Grey Cup championships and one Stanley Cup Final. In 2015, Vicki won a National Newspaper Award for sports writing and is a member of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.