VIERUMÄKI – Almost every day this past week, Hayley Wickenheiser has hit the ice at six in the morning, to work out and skate on her own because she’s a world-class player, and intends to stay at the top of her game at least until the Sochi Olympics.
However, this week she has also been the athlete ambassador mentor at the IIHF High Performance Camp, working with the six athlete ambassadors, other top players themselves, who are assigned to each of the six HPC teams.
“First and foremost, I consider myself a player and I’m not ready not to be a player anytime soon,” she says, laughing.
“I’m responsible for the athlete ambassadors, I’ll share our experiences, speak on different topics, and then spend some time on the ice with different groups. We're developing and helping the athletes to understand what it’s like to compete at the next level,” she adds.
And she should know. As she told the participants of the camp’s Observer Program during her presentation about promoting girls’ hockey, “I’ve seen it all.”
Her career spans over 15 years, in different leagues, in several countries, including Finland and Sweden where she played in men’s leagues. She’s won three Olympic gold medals, and seven Women’s World Championship medals.
No wonder that she speaks, people listen. Hayley Wickenheiser is a true ambassador of women’s hockey.
“I think I understood around the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002 that while it’s important to compete for your nation and try to win gold medals, to drive the development of the sport, you have to share the knowledge. In Canada, we do have the resources and the money, but other countries don’t have it,” Wickenheiser says.
That’s why she’s in Vierumäki in July. That’s why she poses for photos with everybody who asks - and the lines get long - and that’s why in November, there’s the Wickenheiser International Female Hockey Festival in Burnaby, BC, Canada.
“Playing in Finland and Sweden inspired me to keep helping, because when you live in another country you understand their culture a little better and where they’re coming from. Then you know better how to help,” she adds.
Women’s hockey has taken several steps forward since 1994 when Wickenheiser - who played on a boys’ team - first made the Canadian national team as a 15-year-old, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“The level of play varies at the camp, each team has a bottom level and a top level of players, but I think, generally speaking, that it’s higher than last year in Slovakia. There’s a lot of room to learn the little details of the game,” she says.
“The key is what the players do when they go back home, if they implement everything they’ve learned here, great. If not, it’s sort of a lost cause,” she adds.
The camp’s focus has been on the fundamentals, even for the elite players attending the camp. According to Wickenheiser, one sure-fire way to improve the game is to make the players fitter.
Even if the flow of the knowledge is mostly from North America to the rest of the world, the camp gives something to everyone.
“A Canadian kid can learn just as much from a kid playing hockey in Turkey as the other way around. Camps like this are good for all players, everybody gets something out of it,” she says.
Even Hayley Wickenheiser.
“I see it as one package. When I share knowledge and try to inspire others, it makes me better. I learn from people here, and I like hearing the other girls’ stories from, say, South Africa. Sometimes you can get a little down on the game, and that’s when these positive memories fills my tank again,” she says.
At the end of her talk to the participants of the observer program, she reminded the coaches and other leaders in the audience of their role as ambassadors of the women’s game.
“Sometimes, you’ll have to speak for the players. There are still people who think that women should stay in the kitchen, cooking. That’s a reality and I think it’s OK to talk about it. But these athletes deserve the same respect as the men,” she said.