From the absolute thrill of having her first Olympic gold medal placed around her neck in Salt Lake City, to the less than thrilling experience of pulling hair out of a shower drain while at women’s worlds in Harbin, China, it’s the big and little moments alike that make up Hayley Wickenheiser’s incredible two decades worth of memories with Canada’s National Women’s Team.
“The gold medals stand out,” the Shaunavon, Sask., native said of her more obvious career highlights, which includes three at the Olympic Winter Games and seven at the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
But collecting odd stories from obscure places while on the road, and random locker room moments with teammates, “those are the things that you look back on and have the laughs (about),” Wickenheiser said from St. Pölten, Austria, where Team Canada practised and competed prior to heading into Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.
Most hockey fans probably remember her “rant with Don Cherry” after Canada edged the United States 3-2 in the gold medal game at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, when a 23-year-old Wickenheiser learned that “the Americans had our flag on their floor,” and still out-of-breath from the history-making win, passionately inquired on national television if the U.S. players now “want us to sign it.”
But fewer fans likely know about Team Canada’s arduous pre-Olympic boot camps and bonding sessions in small towns such as Dawson Creek, B.C., and Valcartier, Que., while only select friends knew (until now) about the “crazy farmer” outfit she wore for the Halloween party she hosted for her fellow players this season.
“Just some of the fun times that we’ve had with our team, even away from the rink,” Wickenheiser recalled with a chuckle, as she mentally tried to file through her personal favourites from those 20 years of accomplishments and adventures. “Those are the ones off the top of my head.”
Wickenheiser is good-natured while describing her own experiences with Canada’s National Women’s Team, coming across as your typical easy-going, hockey-loving Canadian. But she’s achieved more in her 35 years than most can even dream, which most recently includes leading her fellow Canadian athletes into Fisht Olympic Stadium as the country’s official flag bearer.
It’s just an awesome honour … to know that you carried the flag for 35 million people,” Wickenheiser said, pointing out that women’s hockey has had that privilege twice now, with former player and current assistant coach Danielle Goyette paving the way at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. “I would not have this opportunity if our team didn’t have the success that it’s had in the last four Olympic Games.”
Wickenheiser also highlighted other well-known veterans, such as Jayna Hefford, as having “trail-blazed the way” for women’s hockey, both across the country and around the world. Hefford is the only other player on Canada’s National Women’s Team to have competed at all five Olympic Winter Games since the sport’s inception at Nagano 1998.
“Hayley loves to play the game,” Hefford said of her long-time teammate. “And passion is the greatest thing someone can bring to their job.”
Wickenheiser was just 15 years old when she “was going a 100 miles an hour” before the puck even dropped on her very first Team Canada games at the 1994 IIHF World Women’s Championship in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the Canadians topped the host U.S. 6-3 in the final game and she was awarded her first-ever gold medal wearing the maple leaf on her jersey.
“If I was to do that now, I’d be exhausted,” Wickenheiser said with a laugh of her youthful energy. “I was just so excited to be there.”
While both Wickenheiser and women’s hockey have matured since then, the player herself very much growing up alongside the sport, that hockey passion has never wavered, a fire inside burning as strong as the Olympic flame.
“I just purely and truly love the game of hockey, and everything about it,” Wickenheiser said. “I love being on the ice, and the fact that it’s never the same thing twice when you’re out there; that you can never be perfect at it, it’s always a challenge and I love to play. I have since I put on skates.”
Her younger teammates, including nine players who will experience their first Olympic Winter Games in Russia, hope to echo that passion on and off the ice, and carry Wickenheiser’s women’s hockey legacy to into the future.
“To have the opportunity to be Wick’s teammate is incredible,” first-time Olympian Laura Fortino said. “Wick is more than just a hockey player … she’s an unbelievable individual.”
A characteristic the rookie blueliner especially admires about her Team Canada mentor is “preparation.”
“No matter what the situation is, no matter where we are, or what game it is, she always prepares the same way,” Fortino said. “I’ve learned a lot from Wick.”
For Wickenheiser, that is a true key to longevity, “and will make you successful in whatever you’re doing.”
“The biggest part of performing over a long period of time is consistency,” Wickenheiser said. “You don’t always have to have an amazing performance every time, but you have to consistently deliver when it counts, and be consistent in your practice habits and your training, and your day-to-day life, and that adds up over time.”
“That gives you a base of little things that add up into big moments,” she said.