Wickenheiser enters Hall of Fame having paved way for women’s hockey

Hayley Wickenheiser describes idolizing the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s and thanks her parents as she’s inducted into the Hockey Hall Of Fame.

TORONTO — She had just grinned and held her plaque that’ll soon go up in the Hockey Hall of Fame’s hallowed halls, and then Hayley Wickenheiser stood in front of hundreds of people and she recalled how hard she had to fight for what is likely the greatest career in women’s hockey history.

One story: She was just a kid when she signed up for a hockey school in Regina, and since she’d be the only girl, they told her she’d have to sleep in the usher’s closet. So she and her brother jammed their stuff in that closet and that’s where they slept.

Another story: While playing Bantam AAA, Wickenheiser took the spot of a boy on the team, and that season she developed an ulcer. “I wasn’t nervous to get hit or go on the ice, that’s actually where I felt good,” she said. It was the “comments and harassment” Wickenheiser would often hear from parents and teammates in the hallways that tore up her stomach.

“I wanted to play the game so bad, I didn’t care what I had to endure,” the 41-year-old said.

And thank goodness she did. On Monday, No. 22 from little Shaunavon, Sask., led a class of six inductees into the Hall of Fame, the seventh woman inducted in history, the last to speak of the 2019 class in a nearly three-hour proceeding at the Hall that included a red carpet, a silent auction and real-life “statues” of hockey players who wore old school gear and held hockey poses for impressive lengths of time.

It was the Hall’s chairman of the board, Lanny McDonald, who opened the evening (fine pick to kick things off, sporting that classic moustache in Movember) as he welcomed the inductees to “hockey’s greatest team.”

Wickenheiser was joined by fellow players Guy Carbonneau, the three-time Stanley Cup champion, as well as three-time all-star and two-time Cup-winning defender Sergei Zubov and Vaclav Nedomansky (“Big Ned”), the first player to defect from behind the Iron Curtain. Penguins GM Jim Rutherford and Jerry York, the winningest NCAA hockey coach in history, were inducted in the builders’ category.

Carbonneau flipped seamlessly between French and English, recalling his “long-shot” Canadiens team that won the Stanley Cup in 1993 and told his wife — they met at age 17 — that he never gave her enough credit for raising two daughters, having her own career and supporting him during his. There were a lot of tears in a lot of family members’ eyes in the crowd Monday.

But the grand theme of the night was that none of these inductees ever dreamt they’d be enshrined here. Carbonneau called it an “unexpected call” earlier this year. Nedomansky — who forgot to thank his wife and his three kids in his first time up (Wickenheiser invited him back up during her speech and he told his kids he loved him and that “daddy is dumb”) — had to defect to play in the NHL at all, so he ever dreamt of this day.

Rutherford said “I never could’ve imagined” he’d be here, just after he received his Hall of Fame plaque from Mario Lemieux, who was the most popular guy on the red carpet.

Rutherford ended his speech with some advice: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Because that was the story of my career, and the more they told me I couldn’t do things, the more it turned out that I did.”

For Wickenheiser, it was her parents who fought for her when she was young, and particularly her mom, Marilyn, who argued to get her on boys teams in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and who started up girls teams in both of those provinces.

And it was Wickenheiser’s talent that got her noticed earlier than any Canadian in the history of the women’s program. The four-time Olympic gold medallist remembered being a Grade 10 student when her national team roommate was Margot Page, then a Grade 10 math teacher. “Felt bad for her,” Wickenheiser said, grinning. “Fifteen-year-old roommate, not so much fun for her.” She thanked her earlier teammates for fighting for “relevance, and instead of asking what the game could give them, they asked what they could give the game, and they changed my life forever.”

It’s Wickenheiser who changed the women’s game forever, too, coming in with skill the game hadn’t seen before.

Just before he marched down the red carpet, Brian Burke put it best, tie untied and slung around his neck: “I think Hayley is the greatest women’s hockey player ever,” the former executive turned Sportsnet star analyst said. “She’s walking in and neither shoulder’s going to touch either side of the door frame.”

Considering what’s on Wickenheiser’s plate right now — after she retired from hockey, she enrolled in medical school, which she’s tackling while also working in player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs and running her girls’ hockey festival, WickFest — he wonders what else she has planned.

“I mean, next thing I’m going to see her walking on the moon,” Burke said. Seriously, don’t put it past Hayley Wickenheiser to become an astronaut.

Fellow Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford was in the crowd Monday, and she tried to put into words what she sees as Wickenheiser’s greatest impact on the women’s game through a 23-year career with the national team.

“I think it’s just that she was the face of the game for so long, and she carried that with her for most of her career,” Hefford said.

“That’s not an easy thing to do, but I think that’s where her mark was made in that she was the face and she was always just leading the way for those who weren’t necessarily right in the sport. She was leading it in the sport, but outside the sport, she was the one people knew.”

Not that notoriety ever mattered to Wickenheiser. She’s the only inductee ever that the Hall of Fame was unable to reach to notify her that she was in, and for about four hours. She was in the middle of a simulated catastrophe with her medical school, and no phones were allowed.

“It probably never even crossed her mind,” former teammate Sami-Jo Small said, of the Hall of Fame honour. “Awards? She doesn’t stop to wait for anything like that.”

On Monday, Wickenheiser thanked her son, Noah, who was also in the crowd. A member of the Canadian military, he doesn’t like hockey, though as his mother puts it, the sport “has given me everything that I have in my life.”

She had two little knee-high nieces in the crowd, too, and what Wickenheiser said she’s proudest of is the fact that they can walk into a rink today with hockey bags slung around their shoulders and sticks in their hands and nobody will look at them twice. They don’t have to cut their hair short and change in the bathroom like aunt Hayley did.

“The road is just a little bit easier,” Wickenheiser said.

And, though she didn’t say it, that’s in large part because the seventh woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame helped to pave it.

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