Is Hayley Wickenheiser still Team Canada's leader?
Face of women’s hockey might not captain the team for Sochi
She has been the face of women’s hockey for more than a decade and Hayley Wickenheiser will play in her fifth Olympic hockey tournament in Sochi. But will she still be captain of Team Canada?
That has yet to be determined.
While Wickenheiser will be counted on to help Canada try to make it four Olympic gold medals in a row, her role with the club is diminishing.
"At this time Hayley is our captain, but there could be change; who knows?" said Team Canada general manager Melody Davidson.
"Hayley has a lot on her plate. That part will all sort itself out. Either way we’ve got tremendous leadership, and if Hayley wears the ‘C’ or somebody else is the captain and Hayley wears an ‘A’, it’s a good combination of people with [forwards] Caroline Ouellette, Jayna Hefford, Wick and all those guys.”
While Wickenheiser has continued to wear the “C” in international play leading up to the Olympics, including this week's exhibition games against the U.S., Canada has rotated the captaincy for exhibition games against boy’s triple-A midget teams.
Davidson said the earliest the team’s captain would be announced is early January and she added it could come as late as early February.
“That is not a negative,” Davidson said. “We use the time to build our leadership group overall for the present and for the future.”
In addition to competing for gold, Wickenheiser will also be running for election in Sochi. She’s on the ballot as Canada’s nominee for the IOC Athlete’s Commission, an organization that pushes for athletes’ rights.
It's a position that could take away some of the time she would otherwise dedicate to the hockey team.
The captaincy issue aside, Wickenheiser said she’ll do whatever she can to help Canada win. “I do what I do and whether they give me the ‘C’ or not I’m still going to be the same player and leader that I am,” she said.
No thought of retiring
With Sochi being her fifth trip to the Winter Games (to go with the 2000 Sydney appearance at the Summer Games in softball), Wickenheiser insisted she hasn’t put too much thought into when her illustrious hockey career will conclude. She also doesn’t believe getting older means one’s contribution should automatically diminish.
“I don’t think of slowing down. I think of how I can still get better,” Wickenheiser said. “As soon as I stop feeling that way I’ll know it’s time to go. I talked with lots of retired NHL players and they have told me to never quit until they rip your skates off you because you’ll always miss playing the game. I love to play and come to the rink. When the off-ice work stops being enjoyable, that’s when you probably want to hang it up and move on.”
Wickenheiser was a wide-eyed 15-year-old when she first joined Canada’s national team in 1994, playing in three games at the world championship in Lake Placid, N.Y. It was an opportunity to get her feet wet for a young lady who would become the most celebrated female player in the sport’s history.
Looking back, the 35-year-old Wickenheiser marvelled at all she has experienced and how her role with the team has changed over the years.
“The game has definitely come a long way in 20 years and obviously I’ve grown up through the national team program starting as a kid and now I’m one of the oldest players,” Wickenheiser said.
“Even though I’m older, it’s still as exciting for now as it was when I started. Every Olympics is also so different that you just can’t know what to expect. It’s always a challenge.”
Motivated by disappointing worlds
If Sochi is indeed her Olympic swan song, Wickenheiser will be motivated by the fact she is coming off a disappointing showing at the world championship tournament in Ottawa last spring. Injuries, including a torn MCL, a broken bone in her foot and a back problem, limited her to just three games where she was held pointless.
“I had three major injuries I was trying to play through and I probably shouldn’t have played at all, but I really wanted to try to come back,” Wickenheiser said.
She had to take an injection just to be able to play in the final and it was obvious to anyone who has watched her play over the years she was clearly unable to perform to her usual high standard. "I couldn’t feel much in my right leg," Wickenheiser said. "It was a challenge. I don’t regret giving it a go, but I really didn’t do much."
Wickenheiser has been one of the most physically dominant players in women’s hockey and while the accent was clearly on offence in the early years, she has become a trusted two-way performer. She is also regarded as a strong personality who leads by example and never takes a day off.
Davidson said Wickenheiser has never been one to coddle the team’s younger players, preferring to set a strong example she hopes they’ll follow.
"Her style is to be the hardest working player," Davidson said.
"She does everything that needs to be done for herself to be successful and for the team to be successful. Right from day one her work ethic has been one of her distinguishing marks with the group."
And Wickenheiser hopes it will be her legacy long after she has gone.