Hayley Wickenheiser makes it all sound like a piece of cake.
Shortly after the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that the 40-year-old legend would be joining their staff as assistant director of player development, the question was put to the recently-retired future Hall of Famer: How in the world is she going to pull off this new job while also attending medical school?
“I think on the outside looking in, people think that’s a daunting thing,” Wickenheiser said, casually, on a conference call. “But in my day-to-day life, I’m pretty used to managing a lot.”
In other words, her answer is: I’m Hayley Wickenheiser.
The Saskatchewan product was a teenager when she was first labelled the Best in the World. She’s a four-time Olympic gold medallist, a seven-time world champion. When a rumour came out at the 2002 Olympics that the Americans were stepping on the Canadian flag, Wickenheiser passionately told Don Cherry, after winning gold: “The Americans had our flag on the floor in the dressing room. And now I know if they want us to sign it!”
She won her fourth Olympic gold in Sochi while playing on a broken foot. She was the first female position player to play pro in men’s hockey. She played softball for Canada at the summer Olympics. Lately, she’s been growing the game all over, and as far away as India. And soon, she’ll be Dr. Wickenheiser, after wrapping up her studies at the University of Calgary.
This latest role with the Maple Leafs, then, is yet another line on an already incomparable resume.
It came about after Leafs GM Kyle Dubas invited Wickenheiser to attend a player development camp earlier this summer as a guest coach. Wickenheiser has worked for years with Darryl Belfry, a player development consultant for the Leafs, and she figures it was Belfry who piqued Dubas’ interest in her.
After development camp, Wickenheiser and Dubas sat down and hammered out a plan where she could, as she puts it, “help the Leafs and continue to finish my studies in medicine here in Calgary.”
The role with the Leafs will see Wickenheiser based out of Calgary, and making a couple visits to Toronto each month as her studies permit. She’ll work under Scott Pellerin, who’s now senior director of player development, and Stephane Robidas, the team’s director of player development. She’ll work with young players on their technical development as they enter the Leafs program, just as Pellerin and Robidas do.
She brings something a little extra to the table, too.
“Also, I think in Hayley’s case,” Dubas said, on that same conference call, “she has a greater ability in that she was one of the great players to ever play the game, so she can connect with some of our players on that level as well because that’s a unique experience set that she can bring.”
Indeed. Wickenheiser, who retired back in 2017 as Canada’s leading scorer — and while she was still among the best in the world — knows a thing or two about performing while the spotlight’s on, which is something anyone playing in Toronto will have to contend with.
“I understand well what pressure is, and playing for Canada on the world stage, and so hopefully some of those experiences that I’ve had can help some of these players as the team tries to win,” she said.
Wickenheiser has been around the NHL for two decades thanks to her training and playing, and knows a lot of people who work in player development within the league. “I’ve also trained with the best players in the game,” she said. “I know how those guys think, how they approach the game day in and day out, and I’m pretty confident that I can help players get better, or understand what it takes to get better.”
And know this: Wickenheiser was not hired because she’s a woman. She was hired because she’s Wickenheiser.
“When we go through any process of hiring people to add to our program, we’re looking for the best people, period,” Dubas said. “I thought that Hayley was certainly the best person to fill that role because of her expertise in hockey, her experience in being an elite, elite player at every level of hockey.
“Hayley was here at our development camp and, getting to know her and in talking to her, I just thought that the way that Hayley thinks about hockey and life could be a massive benefit to our player development program, but also to our program in general and to all of the players that are a member of it. I just thought that it was a great, fortunate opportunity for us to be able to hire someone who could be excellent, and we proceeded with that.”
That’s in large part why Wickenheiser took the role on, in addition to the fact it gives her the opportunity to work with the best players in the world.
“I think the biggest reason why I was intrigued about this role is that Kyle was interested in me not to hire a woman, but to hire someone that could do the job,” she said. “And so I feel pretty confident in my abilities to be in this role and that I belong and can handle myself with anyone.
“For me, it’s just I have a job to do, I have a role to take on to help the Leafs try to win, and that’s really how I’m approaching it — no different than I did when I was a player.”
Really, not all that different in the least. Just like when she was playing for Canada while she was also doing her master’s degree and raising her son, Noah.
Now, Wickenheiser’s task is to become a doctor and help some young Leafs grow up on the ice.
Piece of cake, right?
“I think I’ll be able to blend the two nicely,” she said.