At the age of 32, Wickenheiser has many incredible hockey achievements. The short list includes 3 Olympic gold medals, 1 Olympic silver medal, and many World Championships. Wickenheiser has dominated women’s hockey over the years consistantly performing beyond expectations. In fact, I believe that it’s very likely Wickenheiser’s accomplishments will one day be celebrated and on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
With all of the achievements, Hayley Wickenheiser is not just another hockey superstar, she’s a hockey superhero. She’s a pioneer of women’s hockey in Canada and throughout the world. One of the biggest triumphs for women’s hockey was having the sport included in the Olympics for the first time in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, during which Team Canada would win the silver medal. It was this during this period that Wickenheiser’s fame catapulted as she became a household name across Canada. Women’s hockey has grown considerably since the days of the pink uniforms and Wickenheiser deserves her fair share of the credit for that growth.
Many of Wickenheiser’s contributions to women’s hockey can be measured in medals; however, her most significant contribution to the game is the path she helped clear for younger generations of female hockey players. She inspired a generation of women’s hockey players to skate faster, shoot quicker, and play harder. The girls that Wickenheiser inspired during those Nagano Olympics are now young women coming up through the university levels. When Wickenheiser plays for the U of C this upcoming season, she will essentially take away a roster spot and an opportunity that should belong to one of these young women.
University athletics are about more than winning championships. As discussed on Athlete’s Angle with Ryan Karhut (click here for show podcast) during an interview with Sarah Stebeleski and Erica Holmes, both former members of the U of M women’s hockey team, the positive impact of a university athletics career extends well beyond the wins and losses. University is typically a period in which a young person experiences significant growth as a result of their increased independence and additional responsibilities. Generally, the experience is particularly rewarding for university athletes who get to share the years with a group of people that may start out as team mates but finish as friends. Hayley Wickenheiser will indirectly deny a young athlete this opportunity.
That set aside, trying to understand Wickenheisers decision to play CIS hockey is confusing at best. Could any accomplishment achieved by Wickenheiser at the U of C possibly be nearly as fulfilling as any of her other accomplishments? I realize that no accomplishment in hockey can equal an Olympic gold medal but there’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes with winning a scoring title or a league championship. Competing against athletes that are below your skill level shouldn’t be fun and it definitely shouldn’t be something one takes pride in. I’m almost embarrassed for her when thinking about the possibility of her winning a scoring title or accepting an all-star selection.
Regardless of results, whether they’re good or bad, people will make the same comment over and over: she’s a world-class athlete competing against developing players. Wickenheiser can’t win. People will shrug off any achievements she does accomplish and mock her for every single failing.
Wickenheiser’s hockey career is far from done. She still has many years left in her game as was evident at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver where Wickenheiser continued to make significant contributions to Team Canada’s gold medal performance. Wickenheiser could much better serve the game by playing in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), which is the top level of women’s hockey in North America but the league is in its infancy stage of development. Also, all of the teams in the league are located in eastern Canada.
The other option would be to become a coach. As much as I would like to see athletes give everything to their sport, it’s simply not possible. Life happens along the way. There are spouses, kids, friends, jobs, things that one simply can’t be removed from. If that is indeed the case here, Wickenheiser should have accepted a coaching position with the U of C Dinos.
Part of the sports cycle is having younger generations come into the top levels of competition and eventually surpass the veterans. We see it in every sport, every year. In order to continue the sports cycle we need veteran athletes to concede that their time has come and gone and recognize when it’s time to step aside for the younger generation.