The tenth installment of WickFest, Wickenheiser’s popular female hockey festival, took place at the end of last week at the Surrey Sport and Leisure Complex and Newton Arena. It was a sea of smiling parents and daughters, many with T-shirts and hoodies with Wickfest logos and slogans like “Hockey Hair Don’t Care.” They were thrilled to participate in an event created by the woman who would be named to the IIHF Hall of Fame Class of 2019 just a few days later.
In total, WickFest attracted 900 girls aged 8 to 18, featuring 50 teams from British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, and the United States. It’s the first time Surrey, a fast-growing city of 517,000 about 45 minutes southeast of Vancouver, has hosted the tournament, which also features skills clinics and off-ice workshops. That said, WickFest has a long history in these parts.
“I started WickFest in Burnaby after the Vancouver Olympics because there was a real need for growth in female hockey out here in BC,” Wickenheiser, 40, told IIHF.com. “So I wanted to stimulate it and thought it would be great. It was such an awesome Olympics in Vancouver, and there was a lot of momentum. We had it out here for three years, and then we just felt like we had to move it to Calgary to keep it going. Calgary’s really exploded, done really well. So we got introduced to the people here at the city of Surrey through Charmaine Crooks, a former Olympic runner and a friend of mine, and they were all over it. Within a year, they took this idea we had and made it a reality.”
Participating in WickFest was a dream come true for Hayley Lee. (The 13-year-old’s father likes to kid her that she was named after Wickenheiser, while her mom insists that’s not the case!) Born and raised in this community, she’s a winger with the Surrey Falcons, the 1994-founded host team, which offers programs for girls and women aged five to 20.
Despite the all-North American flavour of this particular event, Lee enjoyed getting a taste of WickFest’s international reach on 13 November. The Indian national women’s team stopped off in Surrey to play an exhibition game versus the Falcons before entering the Calgary edition of WickFest.
“It was cool,” Lee said. “We got to see how they made their ice. They showed us pictures of what they had to do every single day and the challenges they had to go through just to get ice against the men’s team, which is really unfair to them. But I still think it’s really cool.”
“That was a massive undertaking, bringing the Indian team from Ladakh, 13,000 feet in the Himalayas, to sea level in Vancouver!” said Wickenheiser, who undertook high-profile missions to India and DPR Korea last year. “In the past, we’ve had China come a couple of years in a row. We’ve had the Czech Republic and Finland. We also had the Mexican national team coming for six years in a row. They went from getting pounded in the first few years to qualifying for World Championships.”
Indeed, taking part in WickFest can help to prepare up-and-coming women’s hockey nations for IIHF competition.
“A lot of these international teams, their level is midget girls’ level in Canada,” Wickenheiser added. “So it’s actually a really good way for them to come and get good competition and then try to grow in terms of being professional, developing a program, meeting some great people in hockey, and making connections. I'm really proud of the international component. I’d like to have 15 international teams one day.”
The five-time Olympian, who won four straight gold medals from Salt Lake City 2002 to Sochi 2014, hopes to see more teams from Asia, as well as Switzerland and Germany. There have even been discussions with the national teams of New Zealand and Australia.
In an essay in the 2013 book Playing It Forward: 50 Years of Women and Sport in Canada, Wickenheiser described playing against boys in Saskatchewan in the 1980s and facing taunts from opposing players and their parents: “I remember thinking that it was wrong that anyone would make a little girl feel so discouraged and frustrated just because she played a sport that closed-minded people believed belonged to boys. I became defiant and driven to deliver. Back then, I chose this behaviour so that it would show on the scoreboard that I could compete.”
This IOC member, who was named to the Order of Canada in 2011, had a much more relaxed demeanour when she met Surrey WickFest participants for a Q&A session. It’s clear that she’s enjoying her busy post-playing life, which includes studying for a medical degree at the University of Calgary and breaking new ground for women as an assistant director of player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Wickenheiser retired as a player in 2017.
She told the girls how she idolized the 1980s Edmonton Oilers as a kid. The powerful centre got her famous #22 jersey because her best friend wore #2 and she wanted a double-digit jersey like Oilers superstar Mark Messier’s #11: “When I was your age, I thought I was going to play for the Oilers. Nobody told me any different. I grew up in a family that believed girls could do anything.”
Wickenheiser disclosed that her favourite Olympic individual linemate was 2013-named IIHF Hall of Famer Danielle Goyette, but added that her favourite line overall was with Natalie Spooner and Meghan Agosta in Sochi: “Spooner was kind of a jokester and scatterbrained, and Gus was funny and level-headed. I was very serious and intense. They’d keep me light and I’d try to keep them focused. We were very successful as a line and liked each other off the ice.”
Hearing stories like these is inspirational for girls like Hayley Lee. She said she hopes to make a local major midget team like the Greater Vancouver Comets or Fraser Valley Rush, and later play for the Ohio State Buckeyes, the NCAA team of future Olympians like Canada’s Spooner and Tessa Bonhomme and Finland’s Emma Terho (nee Laaksonen) and Minttu Tuominen.
Other notable past and present IIHF stars who made appearances in Surrey included Cammi Granato, the all-time leading scorer of Team USA, Meghan Agosta, the 2010 Olympic MVP, and Jenn Gardiner, a Surrey forward who won gold with Canada at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women's World Championship in Japan last month.
The 2019 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Espoo, Finland is coming up soon (4 to 14 April). Wickenheiser remains the all-time leading scorer in Women’s Worlds history with 86 points. Undoubtedly, some of her WickFest participants will go on to represent their countries at future Women’s Worlds.
However, Wickenheiser views this event as a way to build good people, not just good hockey players: “I hope that when they leave, they’ve had fun and learned some things off the ice that they can do to make them a better athlete or hockey player or person, and that they want to keep playing when they leave here and that they love hockey. Because that will take them way further than picking up one or two skills here.”
All WickFest profits go to JumpStart and Right To Play, charities that enable disadvantaged youth globally to access sport in their countries.