Wickenheiser, a legendary six-time Canadian Olympian who won four straight Winter Games gold medals between 2002 and 2014, gladly took time out of her hectic schedule to participate in the ceremonies in Bratislava, Slovakia. She joined a star-studded 2019 Hall of Fame class that included great male players like Miroslav Satan and Zigmund Palffy (Slovakia), Mike Modano (USA) and Jorgen Jonsson (Sweden).
Never afraid to break new ground, this IOC member currently doubles as the Toronto Maple Leafs’ assistant director of player development and as a medical student at the University of Calgary. She also operates WickFest, her popular female hockey festival, in Calgary and Surrey, with plans to expand to Halifax – co-hosting the 2020 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship with Truro, Nova Scotia – and to Toronto.
IIHF.com caught up with the outspoken Wickenheiser after her induction.
When you started playing hockey, could you ever have envisioned yourself entering the IIHF Hall of Fame?
I don't think it’s something you grow up thinking about in Canada. You think about Stanley Cups and the NHL. But certainly on the international stage and during my career as it progressed, you realize what a huge thing it is to play in World Championships.
Maybe we don’t historically appreciate it as much in Canada, but in other countries around the world, to win a World Championship or compete in an Olympic Games is the number one honour. Certainly in women's hockey, that’s the Holy Grail for us. It’s a massive honour to be inducted in Slovakia with some of the great Slovak players. To see the emotion around that is very nice.
How does it feel to witness the growth of women’s hockey and the recognition it’s receiving now?
I smiled today because I see how far we’ve come. I think about how times have changed a lot in the women’s game. I appreciate all the women that came before me that battled their way through. It’s much easier now to be a little girl growing up anywhere in the world to try to play hockey, especially in North America. It was kind of a full circle moment that way. I’m proud of how far it's come.
This spring, the Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded. Using the #FortheGame hashtag, some 200 players announced they would not play professionally in North America this season until better resources are secured. And a new Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) has been formed. What are your thoughts on this busy off-season?
I’ve been saying this for years, that this is what had to happen. The players had to take a stand or nothing’s going to change. So now I think we’ll actually see progress. I think neither the Canadian Women’s Hockey League nor the National Women’s Hockey League is the league that’s going to take women’s hockey forward in the future. It will have to be a league backed, I think, by the NHL. I think the NHL has a plan and they need everybody else to really just get out of the way and allow them to execute and do the job that needs to happen to put the best players on the ice.
I’m proud of the players that stood up to say: “We’re not going to play.” The reality is there’s only enough great hockey spots for about 150 players in the world, and those are the players who stood up and said, “We deserve better.” So it’s taken a while to get there, and there’s going to be some bumps, but by the time another league is formed, I think it will finally be the league that everyone has wanted in the game for a long time.
Finland made history at the Women’s Worlds in April, winning silver on home ice. Do you believe Finland’s success is sustainable in the long term? Or does it all hinge on a handful of elite players like goalie Noora Raty and captain Jenni Hiirikoski?
It always comes down to elite players, whether it's the Finns or Canada. But they have to really continue to develop players at a fast rate. And they don’t have many players. Countries like Finland and Sweden have a few thousand players. In Canada, we have almost 100,000 women’s players. It’s hard to compete. But if they focus their resources and the federations actually care to put money behind it, I absolutely think those countries can compete for a gold medal for many years to come.
Sweden’s medal hopes are on hold after getting relegated in Espoo. It’s night and day from 2006, when Canada beat Sweden in the Olympic gold medal game. Are you surprised by what happened?
I wasn’t surprised, but it’s a huge loss for the women's game. Sweden is such a storied hockey country, a proud hockey nation, and maybe it’s a wake-up call to see how much the federation and people in hockey will care to continue to get the program back where it belongs. I feel bad for the women, because they deserve better from their country in terms of development. They should not ever have been relegated. It’s too powerful and too rich of a hockey history to have had that happen.
Who do you stay in touch with most in the women’s game?
I talk to quite a few former teammates. I suppose the player I’m closest with is Danielle Goyette, because we both live in Calgary. I also played for her with the University of Calgary Dinos. We tend to talk hockey a lot. We both love the game and we love to talk about the NHL and what’s happening, and about how to develop players. We spend a lot of time working with professional players as well. So I really admire her hockey mind and her ability. She’s been a fantastic teammate for a long time, and she’s a Hall of Fame member too.
Can you ever foresee yourself working in professional women’s hockey?
I don’t know. Right now, I’ve got my hands full. I’m finishing medicine and working for the Leafs. They’ve been gracious enough to allow me to do that, going back and forth between finishing up my med career. So I don’t have any time right now to do that. If something happened down the road, I would look at it. But right now, I’m very happy working for the Leafs in the best league in the world with the best players. It’s a nice place to be.