Wickenheiser optimistic women's hockey will have new pro league in 2 years

Ten-year-old Olivia Mack walked around Calgary's WinSport Arenas in a trance this weekend after meeting one of the newest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: Hayley Wickenheiser.

New Hall of Fame inductee sees her annual 'Wickfest' as vital tool of development for female players

Hayley Wickenheiser started Wickfest following the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver to promote women's hockey. (Twitter/@wickfest)

Ten-year-old Olivia Mack walked around Calgary's WinSport Arenas in a trance this weekend after meeting one of the newest members of the Hockey Hall of Fame: Hayley Wickenheiser.

"She's my inspiration," Olivia said softly during a break from patrolling the blue line for the Red Deer Sutter Fund Chiefs at the 10th annual Canadian Tire Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival.

"I want to be just like her when I grow up."

Wickenheiser launched her hockey festival — affectionately known as Wickfest — after the 2010 Olympics with the express purpose of growing the women's game. Over the last decade, more than 30,000 players have taken part in the event designed to teach them about success in hockey and in life.

Over the last two weekends in Calgary, more than 2,500 girls and young women filed into Wickfest with sticks in hand and hockey bags slung over their shoulders.

The irony is not lost on Wickenheiser, who used to slink into the arena hoping to go unnoticed as the only girl on the team.

"These days, a little girl with a bag and stick walking into a rink is no big deal," Wickenheiser said. "Whereas when I was that little girl, heads would turn because it wasn't all that common."

Fresh off the Nov. 18 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Wickenheiser rushed home to write a medical school exam Wednesday before shuffling over to WinSport's Canada Olympic Park to nurture her passion project. 

Although the Canadian Women's Hockey League is defunct — and the best players in the world are boycotting the National Women's Hockey League in the U.S. — Wickenheiser believes the future is bright for the women's game.

"I think the NHL has a plan moving forward," said Wickenheiser, 41. "If women's pro hockey is going to happen, it's going to have to be with NHL involvement.

"I see it as possible: four to six teams probably based in the eastern part of Canada and in the U.S., just for money and geography. And I think it'll happen. I actually think it will happen within the next year or two. So we'll see, but it's really the next way to elevate the women's game outside of the Olympics, because people need to see the women play more often."

Vital tool

In the meantime, she sees Wickfest as a vital tool to help nurture and develop the next generation. The festival is set to expand to Surrey, B.C., in the new year, and she hopes Halifax and Toronto will be next.

"I feel like the coaching and development for young female hockey players isn't where it should be," said Wickenheiser, who is also the assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"And it's also important to expose kids to other sports so they learn that they don't have to play hockey 12 months a year — you can do a lot of other things, as well."

Georgia Simmerling, an Olympic track cyclist and ski cross racer, stopped by the Wickfest Saturday to teach the kids exactly that.

"It's good to be involved in different sports, and I'm here to talk about navigating that," Simmerling said. "And I think that's a message that's important for the parents to hear as well."

Erica Wiebe, an Olympic gold medallist in wrestling, talked to the girls — and their parents — about mental resilience under pressure. Team Canada hockey netminder Shannnon Szabados lectured on game-day preparation and how the mind is the biggest asset for a goalie.

Erica Wiebe, shown winning gold in wrestling at the Rio Olympics in 2016, was one of a number of Canadian Olympians sharing their experiences in sport. (The Associated Press)

Team Canada forward Natalie Spooner took the girls through a dryland session to teach them how to warm up for a game like an Olympian. And Olympic curling silver medallist Cheryl Bernard told the girls to think of their lives like a book, warning them against letting anyone else hold the pen.

"Sports gives you confidence to walk into a boardroom and apply for a job you might not know if you qualify for," said Bernard, president and CEO of the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. "Promoting sport is not about getting everyone to stand on a podium or win Olympic medals. It's for values, the teamwork and the confidence that all translate to life later on."

Olivia's dad ,Graeme Mack, played minor hockey growing up, and there was one girl on his team.

"Just the one," he said. "It's very different now. Even the small towns have girls' hockey teams now. 

"This whole event is phenomenal. Hayley is joining the girls on the benches. They're just in awe."



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.