By Rob Ficiur
Two weeks ago the most decorated female hockey player in history retired. That weekend Hayley Wickenheiser was honored at a Calgary Flames vs Edmonton Oilers hockey game. There Wayne Gretzky called Haley the Gordie Howe of Women’s hockey. At first the title sounded very generous to a well-deserved star. The more I have learned about Hayley in the last two weeks, maybe there needed to be a bigger title for her – but in the hockey world is there anything higher than being called Gordie Howe.
When Gordie Howe broke into the six team NHL in 1948 he entered a well-established team and hockey league. Haley Wickenheiser was a hockey pioneer. There was no Woman’s Hockey League for her to sign up and play with – so she (and her fellow hockey pioneers) had to create something where they had been nothing.
Haley’s first professional tournament was the 1994 World Championship. That year was the third ever International Ice Hockey Federation World Women’s hockey championship. From 1990 – 2004 the Canadian women’s team went undefeated for eight tournaments in a row. Winning is great, but winning when your team is a two or three levels above the competition has its own challenges.
Four years after her first World Championships, Hayley (and Canada) participated in their first Women’s Olympic Hockey games. Her silver medal in Nagano Japan was not a well-liked color. Never again in her next four Olympics would Hayley see anything but a gold medal.
The biggest challenge for the Canadian Women’s team, from this time until now, is that the United States and Canada have developed teams that are a league above the rest of the world. In the six Olympics the Canadian and American women earned eleven of the twelve first and second place medals. Other countries are growing stronger, but the North Americans are still in a different league. The struggle for some hockey balance occurred one hundred years ago when hockey came the Winter Olympics. In the first Winter Olympic games Canada’s Hockey team won all five of their games by a total score of 110-3. Like the early Canadian Men Olympics Haley had to play in a world where they had to seek out meaningful competing.
In 2001 Hayley became the first female hockey player to play in a men’s professional league. She suited for a second division Finnish league where she scored two goals and ten assists in twenty-three games. She was on the team to play and she did.
In her five Olympic games Haley has scored 18 goals and 33 assists in 26 games. Looking at the numbers can be misleading because scores can be run up quickly when playing weaker teams.
My sharpest memory of Haley was from the 2002 Winter Olympics. Somehow the story got told that the rival Americans had a Canadian flag on the floor in their dressing room. An emotional Haley said – post game – that when they heard that the Canadians were outraged and more determined than ever to beat the Americans. They need that determination as that Gold Medal game was the worst officiated hockey game I have ever seen. Canada got penalty after penalty – playing shorthanded nearly half the game. Somehow despite all that they (we) won that first Olympic Gold for Women’s hockey. In a post-game interview with Don Cherry she wondered (now that Canada had won that gold medal) if the Americans wanted team Canada to come and sign that flag.
This week a fellow Saskatchewan hockey player, Patrick Marleau scored his 500th NHL goal. Marleau’s rookie season was 1998, the year Haley earned her first Olympic medal. Marleau also collected two gold medals for Canada in 2010 and 2014. As both of these players come to the final year(s) of their careers there is one difference. Patrick Marleau will have earned about $70 million dollars as a professional hockey player. There are no multi-million-dollar hockey deals in the world of women’s hockey.
Hayley has earned a degree in kinesiology – and hopes to become a medical doctor. The money she earned as an amateur hockey player was enough to keep her going – now she has to find a day job. In this respect Hayley is like Gordie Howe, having earned just enough money to play the game she loved.
Sports fans have not heard the last from this 2011 winner of the Order of Canada. She has become involved as an advisor to the Olympic committee. CBC employed Hayley was employed as a baseball analysis in the summer Olympic ball tournament. In these and other ways that we cannot predict, Hayley Wickenheiser, the Gordie Howe of Women’s Hockey, is beginning a new chapter in her hockey life.