Her statistics are mind-boggling and her accomplishments unparalleled. But perhaps the most amazing thing about Hayley Wickenheiser is the fact that she’s only 31 years old.
With all she’s done in—and for—the sport of women’s hockey, it seems like Wickenheiser has been around forever. But that’s because her natural talent and her desire to achieve took her from small-town Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, and propelled her to the highest level of her game and national prominence at just 15. And in the 16 years since, Wickenheiser’s star has shone brighter than any other in the women’s game.
With 146 goals and 318 points in 216 games with Team Canada over the years, Wickenheiser is far and away the leader in every statistical category in the history of the national women’s program—and the history of women’s hockey in general.
Now in her fourth Winter Olympics (and her fifth overall: she played softball in the 2000 Sydney summer games), Wickenheiser continues to add to her totals and her legend as a role model and trailblazer continues to grow. And the best news for her fans and for fans of Canada’s women’s team is that the two-time Olympic gold medallist and six-time world champion has no plans to slow down any time soon.
“I’ve spent half my life on the national team, but I don’t feel old and I think I’ve got many good years left,” Wickenheiser—who was chosen to deliver the athletes’ oath at the February 12 opening ceremony—said in an interview posted on the Hockey Canada Web site prior to the Vancouver games. “It’s been a long career. I’ve seen the game evolve and change over the years and have had the chance to have a lot of interesting experiences related to the sport. For a lot of athletes, they would just be in the primes or coming into their primes of their careers. Physically, I feel like I’m starting to play the best hockey of my career.”
That’s probably not what Team Canada’s opponents want to hear, but it has to be music to the ears of Wickenheiser’s teammates and the national-program coaching staff. It means more time for Wickenheiser to lead the team on the ice and to draw more girls into the game at the grassroots level to ensure future success for the country.
She’s in the position to do both at the same time by inspiring teammates and young players in her role as Canada’s captain at these Olympics. One of the biggest compliments to Wickenheiser is that because of her dominance a decade ago, she no longer has to carry Team Canada these days. Still a key contributor who plays in all situations (she logged the second-most ice time of all Canadian forwards and chipped in with six points in Canada’s first two games of this tournament), Wickenheiser has seen young players develop into tremendous talents who can now carry the scoring load.
The idea of young girls having someone to idolize in the women’s game simply wasn’t a luxury afforded to Wickenheiser in her formative years.
“I didn’t know women played hockey until I was 12, when I watched the world championship in 1990,” she says. “I looked up to Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.”
And it shows. Over the years, Wickenheiser has been a blend of those two legends of the men’s game, using equal doses of skill and power to dominate opponents. She still possesses those abilities, but now it’s less about imposing her will on other teams and more about doing whatever she can to fit into Canada’s team-first concept of trying to get all five skaters on the ice involved in the play.
Wickenheiser’s Canadian team is certainly expected to be in the gold-medal game at these Olympics, giving her a chance to reach the top of the podium again as she did in Salt Lake City (2002) and Torino (2006) after winning silver in her first Olympics in Nagano (1998).
And considering she’s showing no signs of winding down and giving no thoughts to walking away from the game she loves and at which she excels, Wickenheiser could very well have a chance to represent the country again in 2014 and quite possibly even 2018. It’s hard to believe, but it’s well within reach if she so desires.
With many of her male counterparts playing the game at its highest level well into their late 30s and even 40s these days, Wickenheiser would be 39 when the 2018 Olympics roll around. She’s in terrific physical condition and still seems to have the passion needed to play the game. And without body contact, women’s hockey just doesn’t take the physical toll on the body the way the men’s game does.
Although other countries do all they can to raise their games to the levels set by Canada and the United States, it hardly seems likely that they’ll close the gap soon. That will make Canada’s women a gold-medal contender every time they step on the ice. It also means that if the stars align, it’s conceivable that Wickenheiser could win gold medals in five consecutive Olympics.
So if she wants to, it seems that Wickenheiser could continue to be a leader for—and an inspiration to—this country for years to come. Already the greatest woman ever to play the game of hockey, Wickenheiser also has a chance to be the greatest Canadian Olympian of all time.
Wickenheiser has made a career of doing things no one else has ever done. So it really shouldn’t surprise anyone if she’s still going strong eight years from now.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/patersonjeff.