STAR INTERVIEW C anadian hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser remembers exactly what launched her dream of competing at an Olympic Games – the Winter Games in Calgary in 1988. " They were one of the biggest inspirations of my life," says the woman Sports Illustratedrates as the 20th toughest athlete in the world. Wickenheiser and her family had driven to Calgary from their hometown of Shaunavon, Saskatchewan. They watched Finland's Matti Nykanen win the first of his three gold medals, in ski jumping. Young Hayley, then aged ten and an ardent softball and hockey player, was swept away – not just by the electricity surrounding Nykanen's achievements but also in the heady atmosphere of the Calgary event. She resolved right then to switch to ski jumping and follow in the Finn's astonishing tracks. Alas – her dream of airborne glory was fated to remain unfulfilled. Instead, Wickenheiser became one of the best female hockey players in the world, leading her team to two Olympic gold medals, one silver, and nine International Ice Hockey Federation ( IIHF) World Women's Championships. At the same time, she pioneered the role of female skater on a professional men's hockey team. She also broke new ground as the first woman to compete in a team sport in both the Olympic Winter and Summer Games. Trying to win ' em all? Wickenheiser has certainly tried. As a matter of fact, she says it was the rare experience of not winning that made her first shot at a gold medal, in Nagano in 1998, " the greatest and the worst experience of my life". Team Canada had arrived at the historic first Olympic Women's Hockey tournament feeling hopeful after a competitive season against the US – but ended up taking silver. Wickenheiser, 19, fell into " an Olympic depression". It was assistant coach Wally Kozak who reminded her that she shouldn't play for medals, but for the joy inherent in the game. After all, it was a passion for hockey that had got her started. Wickenheiser's dad played in an old-timers' league in Saskatchewan, and when four- year-old Hayley expressed interest, he built an outdoor ? OLYMPIC REVIEW45 LeftWickenheiser has been hailed as one of the top female hockey stars in the world BelowOn the ice doing what she does best
46OLYMPIC REVIEW STAR INTERVIEW rink. All three of his children took to the ice, but none as enthusiastically as Hayley. She started playing organised hockey at six. The community was small enough that it didn't matter that she was a girl in a " boys' game". " Most of the grief growing up was not from the players but from their parents," says Wickenheiser. " I learned at a young age not to listen to the critical opinions of others." In 1991, the Wickenheisers moved to Calgary and Hayley shot to the " bigs" of amateur hockey, competing in the under- 17 girls' category with Team Alberta at the Canada Games, alongside girls four years her senior. Better still, they won, with Wickenheiser named Most Valuable Player in the final game after scoring the winning goal. Soon afterwards, she was selected for the national team at the tender age of 15. Four years later, Wickenheiser helped seize silver in Nagano. Then came the Games in Salt Lake City in 2002. The Canadian women arrived as underdogs, the Americans having won all eight pre- Games clashes. Despite being a player down for much of the final, Team Canada triumphed, to the astonished delight of its fans. Assistant captain Wickenheiser calls Salt Lake's finale " the greatest win in my career". Afterward, Canadian male ice hockey legends like Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier crowded into the dressing room to celebrate the women's supremacy. " I think at that point it brought together the men's and women's games a little bit," says Wickenheiser, adding that the exuberance may even have contributed to the men's subsequent win over the US. " It was a big week for hockey in Canada, that's for sure." In 2006, the women successfully defended their 2002 gold medal with a comfortable 4- 1 victory in Turin against Sweden. Wickenheiser was again named MVP and was also the Top Forward and All Star Forward with five goals and 12 assists in Canada's five games. Wickenheiser had been busy between Salt Lake City and Turin. For one thing, she had competed for Canada in softball at the Sydney Olympic Summer Games, finishing in eighth place. In 2002- 2003, she had joined a professional men's team – Kirkkonummen Salamat of Finland's second division – as the first female non- goalie to make that leap. Wickenheiser played 17 games there in 2003- 2004 before deciding that the sacrifice of living across the world from her young child was too great. She and her partner, Tomas Pacina, did things differently when she took her current job with Sweden's Eskilstuna team, a Division 1 club in the third tier of men's pro hockey. This time, he and son Noah tagged along. Family allegiances notwithstanding, playing hockey in a professional men's league is not for the faint- hearted. " I have to be 100 per cent every time I step on the ice playing against guys. It's very fast, ( they're) very skilled players," Wickenheiser explains. " It pushes me, and I want to be out of my comfort zone to become a better player." She feels that she's living the dream. " Every day I get up and I'm a professional hockey player. I get to go to the rink. And it's a great life." Wickenheiser shares what she learns overseas with her team- mates back home. " You don't really want to take away from what makes Canadian hockey great but you can always add the things that you see around the world to make it better." Improvement is crucial as the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games approach. While the women's team is keen to compete on home ice, its members are determined to concentrate on honing their talents, rather than getting distracted by the hype. Wickenheiser, now team captain, says it's vital not to be dazzled by the quest for gold. " The goal for us has to be that we want to play the greatest hockey that we've ever played," she says, " and play it for the love of the game." ¦ LeftAt home in Calgary RightBeing introduced to the crowd before a Canadian international match " I HAVE TO BE 100 PER CENT EVERY TIME I STEP ON THE ICE PLAYING AGAINST GUYS. IT'S VERY FAST, ( THEY'RE) VERY SKILLED PLAYERS. IT PUSHES ME, AND I WANT TO BE OUT OF MY COMFORT ZONE TO BECOME A BETTER PLAYER, EVERY DAY I GET UP AND I'M A PROFESSIONAL HOCKEY PLAYER. I GET TO GO TO THE RINK. AND IT'S A GREAT LIFE"