Saturday, 14 January 2017

No Waiting Period

There are very few players who have had the mandatory waiting period for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame waived upon retirement. A total of ten players have received the honour of being exempted from the waiting period due to their notable contributions to the game, and the exemption was actually cancelled following Wayne Gretzky's induction in 1999 unless a player fulfilled "certain humanitarian circumstances". I'm not sure what that criteria is, but I'm pretty sure that Hayley Wickenheiser deserves that honour for all she has done for the game of hockey both on and off the ice after announcing her retirement on Friday night.

For years, she was regarded as the best female hockey player on the planet. She's won numerous international accolades and achievements. She was an icon and an inspiration for many girls and boys across a number of nations as Wickenheiser's legacy and impact on the game was felt in places where hockey is rarely seen. She's an Olympic gold medalist, a World Champion, a Clarkson Cup champion, a CIS National Champion, a Canada Winter Games gold medalist, an Esso Women's National Champion, and she is one of a few Canadian women to compete for the country in both the Summer and Winter Olympics when she went to the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games with the Canadian softball team.

What she did on the ice may never be equaled, but it was what she did for the sport of hockey in Canada and across the globe that should allow her to gain entry without the waiting period. Millions of girls lug their hockey bags in and out of arenas thanks to Canada's #22, and a vast number of those girls have Hayley Wickenheiser to thank for making women's and girl's hockey a part of our Canadian culture as much as men's and boy's hockey is.

Hayley told The Canadian Press' Donna Spencer,
"The greatest stride's been made in the acceptance of girls playing the game," says Wickenheiser. "Any little girl in this country can walk into a hockey rink and no one is going to think twice or look twice. There's female hockey change rooms in a lot of rinks now."

"I remember when I was a kid, I hid in the bathroom and tucked my hair up so no one would know I was a girl. I just went through hell really, to play. Girls don't have to go through hell anymore to play hockey."
It's this reality that a number of girls went through before women's hockey gained any sort of recognition, and Hayley was one of the players on the precipice of this explosion onto the international scene. While there's still a lot of work to be done, Wickenheiser was one of the women who was blazing a path for the women who have now moved into the spotlight.

Born on August 12, 1978 in Shaunovon, Saskatchewan, Hayley began her playing career on the outdoor rinks in the prairie town at age five where she was the lone girl on the boys' team. This fact would remain unchanged until she was 12 when her family moved to Calgary, Alberta, but her new home didn't change her love for her favorite team in the Edmonton Oilers and her favorite player in Mark Messier. Her stories of changing in the bathrooms at rinks in order to play with the boys, however, led to the usual from players, fans, and parents on opposing teams who saw the girl hockey player as different. The words used were not as kind as "different". Her resolve was tested, but she pulled through to make Team Alberta for the U18 Canada Winter Games. It was at that tournament where she scored the winning goal in the gold-medal game and was named most valuable player of the championship game.

Her hard work clearly paid off when a young Hayley Wickenheiser was named as part of the Canadian National Women's Hockey Team at the age of 15 in January 1994. While a number of people thought her age would be a drawback when it came to international experience, Hayley's play quickly dispelled any notions of lack of experience as she helped Canada win gold at the Women's World Championship in Lake Placid, New York in April of 1994. Hayley was the youngest player at the tournament, and her first international point came on an assist.

Wickenheiser would be a mainstay on the Canadian hockey spectrum for the remainder of her career, she opted not to go the traditional route to the NCAA. Instead, she played domestically with the Edmonton Chimos and Calgary Oval X-Treme in preparing for what may have been the biggest moment of recognition for women's hockey when it was added to the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games for the first time. Hayley didn't disappoint at that tournament, scoring two goals and adding six assists in six games, but Canada fell to Team USA in the gold-medal game by 3-1 score. Needless to say, the 20 year-old Wickenheiser looked for opportunities to raise her game yet again as the desire for an Olympic gold medal burned inside her.

She found that opportunity in September of 1998 when Philadelphia Flyers GM Bobby Clarke, impressed by her efforts, reached out to Wickenheiser and invited her to Flyers rookie training camp. While Wickenheiser was never on the short list for making the Flyers, her experience proved valuable for the young lady, and she attended camp a second time in 1999. While he attendance at the camps had news people buzzing over her inclusion and possibly Clarke's sanity, Wickenheiser used the camps to improve her game by competing against men. She told Peter Mansbridge in his book, One On One,
"I went to the Flyers rookie camp for two summers. Bob Clark had asked me after the '98 Olympics to come and train. I didn't go there with the intention of making the Flyers; I went there to get better, and I think I certainly did that. I saw what it took to play at that level."
It would be softball that occupied her life over the next year as Wickenheiser was named to the Canadian National Softball Team that would represent the country in Sydney, Australia at the 2000 Summer Olympics. By playing in the first game, she became only the second woman to compete in the Summer and Winter Games and first to do it in a team sport. While Canada was not a favorite to medal - and they did not - Wickenheiser had bigger dreams on the horizon after leaving Sydney.

With Wickenheiser playing her best hockey, Canada went into the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics as the underdog to the Americans, but it would be Wickenheiser who scored seven goals and added three helpers in five games, including the second goal in the gold medal game, as Canada downed Team USA 3-2 to earn their first gold medal. Hayley was named as the MVP of the tournament after receiving the gold medal. Television networks began to notice the interest from fans as well as ratings services in Canada and the US noted that an audience of 4.536 million with a peak of 6.225 million viewers tuned in to watch the women battle for Olympic gold.

Again, Hayley wasn't content with just sitting back after avenging the loss in 1998. In 2003, she accepted a roster spot with a team in Italy to play in their professional men's league, but the Italian Winter Sports Federation ruled that women were ineligible to play in a men's league. She received an offer from Phil Esposito to join the ECHL's Cincinnati Cyclones, but decided to explore her options in Europe thanks to the style of play being less physical and more skilled which is similar to the women's game. Eventually, Wickenheiser join Kirkkonummi Salamat in Finland's Division-II League where she scored two goals and added ten assists in 23 games while playing against men. In doing so, she became the first woman to score a goal in a men's professional hockey league. The offer for her to remain with the team was extended, but she declined when it was announced that the team was moving to the Division-I level where the physicality would increase.

I'm going to pause the timeline on her incredible career here simply because of what these achievements have meant. Since suiting up for Flyers rookie camp and a professional season of Finnish hockey, we've seen women such as Shannon Szabados, Hilary Knight, and Angela Ruggiero suit up alongside the men. While only Szabados has played a full season in North American men's professional hockey, the fact that more women are being included to participate in men's leagues is major progress. While I still believe that Robin Herman should be inducted for breaking a major barrier in sports, Hayley Wickenheiser did the same when it came to what she's done and her pioneering has allowed other women to break barriers as well.

Ok, to not make this too long-winded, it's time to provide a synopsis: gold medal and MVP at the 2006 Torino Olympics; becomes all-time leading Olympic goal scorer with her 16th-career goal in a 13-1 win against Sweden on February 17, 2010; gold medal at 2010 Vancouver Olympics; named an Officer of the Order of Canada by Governor General David Johnston on June 30, 2011; $14 million recreational complex in Shaunovon named the Crescent Point Wickenheiser Centre after Hayley; EASports announces that Wickenheiser and Ruggiero would be the first female playable players in NHL '13 on August 28, 2012; earned Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from University of Calgary in June 2013; named Canada's flag-bearer for Opening Ceremony of 2014 Sochi Olympics on January 23, 2014; gold medal at 2014 Sochi Olympics, joining teammates Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette as the first hockey players to win four Olympic gold medals; elected to the International Olympic Committee's Athletes' Commission on February 20, 2014; memorialized on Canada's Walk of Fame in October 2014; completes Masters in Medical Science in June 2015 at University of Calgary.

We haven't even mentioned her adoption of Noah, the son of her long-time boyfriend Tomas Pacina, in 2001 that kept her grounded when accolades were pouring in. She told TorStar News Service in 2012,
"When you are an athlete, it's the 'disease of me' because you are so concerned about everything about yourself - your performance, what you eat, how much you're sleeping," Wickenheiser said Thursday. "It's always about yourself. Then you have a child and then it suddenly is not always about you.

"I think I'm actually a more patient person since I've become a mother. I've become more empathetic overall. I've learned to really enjoy my time at the rink and love what I do, but when I leave I really can leave it behind now better than I ever could."
While Wickenheiser and Pacina are no longer together, the two have made Noah their priority and they work well together in ensuring that Noah has all the support he needs in his endeavors. Noah is a competitive swimmer, and actually rejected the idea of playing hockey because of the long periods of time that it took his mom away from him. Wickenheiser, though, made sure to include Noah in her teams' celebrations so that he grew up around strong female role models and got a chance to share in her achievements.

In 2012, she helped the Calgary Dinos defeat the University of Montreal Carabins 5-1 in the CIS National Championship game. She helped the CWHL's Calgary Inferno win the Clarkson Cup over Les Canadiennes de Montreal last season. She's a seven-time gold medalist at the Women's World Hockey Championships. She has basically done everything there is to do in hockey with the exception of winning the Stanley Cup, but even that might not be out of her reach if she decides to move into a hockey management role.

The future, however, belongs to Hayley Wickenheiser as she enters medical school. Where she lands is up to her, but the opportunities the future holds for her are endless.

One of those opportunities is her ongoing support and efforts behind Wickfest, the female hockey tournament held in Calgary every November that welcomes players and teams from all over the planet. Along with the support of main sponsor Canadian Tire, Hayley has seen a dream come true seven times as the city of Calgary has played host to this amazing event that features 1500+ players. The tournament has welcomed teams from all over the planet, and even saw a team from Mexico win their age group! How great is that?

On top of her work in growing the game through Wickfest, Hayley also devotes her time to many charitable causes such as JumpStart, Right to Play, KidSport, many cancer-related causes and others related to autism. She's active in the community, and she's touched the lives of thousands, maybe millions, of kids through her work on the ice and in the community.

If there was anyone who has lived up to and beyond the expectations of an athlete who deserves to have her induction period waived, Hayley Wickenheiser has all the boxes checked off. She's expanded the game across borders and in numbers, she's has more gold to her name than some small countries, and she's never forgotten where she came from or her roots when it comes to growing the game in Canada. I'm pretty certain that she fulfills that "certain humanitarian circumstances" criteria bucket completely with examples to spare.

276 career games. 168 goals. 379 points. Canada's all-time leading scorer. Humanitarian. Philanthropist. Winner at every level she's played. Do the right thing, Hall of Fame. Put Hayley Wickenheiser in without a waiting period. It's only fitting for her to join the list of men whose names include Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Gordie Howe, and Maurice "Rocket" Richard when you consider all she's done for the game in Canada and across the world.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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