How Hayley Wickenheiser inspired my hockey career

Hayley Wickenheiser changed women's hockey forever. (Getty)

I was four when my parents first enrolled me in a youth hockey program. This was just a few months after the 1998 Winter Games, and the first-ever women’s hockey Olympic competition.

My older brother had already been playing competitive hockey for years and attended hockey camps in the summer, weekly power skating sessions during the season, and, of course, severely dented the garage door in the driveway while practicing his shot.

It was while my parents watched that first Olympic gold medal final between Canada and the United States that it clicked. Maybe their daughter should get a chance to follow that path, too.

I don’t remember much about the start of my own hockey journey. There was the the typical small-town stuff. You know, cold rinks, early mornings, stops at Tim Hortons. But one thing that does stand out is that I remember tucking my hair into my shoulder pads before I stepped on the ice.

I didn’t want to stand out for being the girl on a boys team.

I was already teased at school for being a tomboy since I spent my time in the schoolyard playing soccer-baseball and mini sticks, while ignoring Barbie dolls altogether.

For me it was just easier at the rink to pretend that I was one of the boys on the ice.

My mom would get questioned about why she would put her daughter in a sport that was so violent, and why I wasn’t interested in a more feminine pastime, say gymnastics or dance.

That stuff just didn’t interest me.

By eight, I was playing novice boys hockey. My family watched every Toronto Maple Leafs game that would accommodate our own hockey schedules, the four of us huddled in the family room idolizing Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts. I had my favourite player, Darcy Tucker, printed on the back of a Leafs jersey I unwrapped at Christmas. I had a poster of the Maple Leafs on my bedroom wall, and it was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. I was now outside with my brother when he shot pucks in the driveway, and I’d often pretend I was Wayne Gretzky, scoring the winning goal. Even if he was a little before my time.

Then another Olympics rolled around, this time in Salt Lake City.

For the first time ever I was watching women’s hockey on television.

They were fast, aggressive, skilled, and proud. Leading the charge was a 23-year-old Hayley Wickenheiser, who quickly replaced Tucker as my favourite player.

Those Olympics were her breakthrough. She led Canada to the nation’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey, while racking up her own personal accolades. She won the MVP award after leading the tournament in goals and points.

Wickenheiser radiated confidence, passion and outstanding leadership in her interviews — all while being the fiercest player on the ice. She told little girls across the nation that they should never be afraid to dream big and be bold.

I wanted to be just like Hayley.

I’m fortunate to pinpoint this single moment as one that shaped so much of my future. I finally had a female role model in my sport to look up to. She was larger than life, and she provided all the assurance and confidence I needed to chase my own dreams.

Soon after, we added a very important poster on my bedroom wall. It was Team Canada sprawled out on the ice, gold medals around their necks, smiling ear to ear. I saw it every day when I opened my eyes in the morning, and every night before I went to sleep. I no longer had to imagine being the first girl to hoist the Stanley Cup.

I had something more tangible now.

For me, it was easy to relate to Hayley’s story. We both played boys hockey until our early teens before switching over. I even converted to playing forward, because I wanted to score goals like Hayley.

I was no longer ashamed of being the girl on the boys team. I now wore my ponytail proudly outside my jersey, and it blew in the wind when I skated by the boys. I started going to the same summer hockey camps my brother went to, and his power skating sessions, too. I joined rep soccer and boys lacrosse in the summer to stay in shape and toughen up.

It paid off the next season when I made the Atom Boys AAA team, and now other parents were asking mine where I learned to skate.

Wickenheiser didn’t teach me the mechanics, but she provided me with the inspiration. A meaningful connection to a positive female role model, Hayley instilled a drive inside of me.

That season our team had hockey cards made, and written under “future ambition” I wrote: “Canadian Olympic Team.” I still have it in my wallet today.

Inspired, I was relentless in chasing my dreams. Seventeen years later, I had the honour of pulling a Team Canada jersey over my head at 2019 Winter Universiade.

It wasn’t the Olympics, but it was a full circle moment and the highlight of my career.

And I owe it in part to Hayley Wickenheiser, who opened up a world of possibilities.

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