As arguably the greatest women’s hockey player of all time, Hayley Wickenheiser spent two decades carving up the ice, racking up Olympic medals and handling the challenges that professional sports had to offer her.
Now her accomplishments include graduating from medical school and achieving an M.D. during a global pandemic, all while still working in player development with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Wickenheiser, speaking to CTV News Channel on Sunday about her new book ‘Over the Boards: Lessons from the Ice’, acknowledged that it sounds like a lot when you lay it all out.
“But it’s just really the evolution of my life,” she said. “I had a long career — 23 years — in hockey, and then like most athletes, that ends and you have to figure out what you’re going to do next with your life.
“It was a very natural progression for me to go into medicine,” she added.
She said that anyone who has known her since she was “about 10 years old” would’ve known that she wanted eventually to go into medicine
“Spent as much time in the training room with the doctors and trainers as I did in the dressing room, probably,” she said.
Wickenheiser is known best for her historic run as a hockey player, achieving four Olympic gold medals with Canada’s women’s team and seven World Championship gold medals.
She was also the first woman to play full-time professional men’s hockey in a position other than goalie.
Wickenheiser officially retired from playing hockey in 2017, but she didn’t slow down from there. In 2018, she was hired as the assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs, while also making her way through medical school.
But what she couldn’t expect was that just as her journey as a medical student was coming to an end, a huge curveball was just around the corner: COVID-19.
“Like everybody in this country and around the world, in the span of about 24 hours, 20 months ago, my life as I knew it was over,” Wickenheiser said. “I was pulled out of my last rotation as a medical student, just finishing up school, because they were worried about lack of PPE. I was working in the NHL, commuting between Calgary and Toronto for the Leafs, and that suddenly stopped, and so I found myself just sort of sitting, thinking ‘what am I going to do?’”
But giving up wasn’t an option. Wickenheiser was dedicated to continuing her career in medicine, despite having to start her residency at the height of the pandemic.
Understanding the weight of the situation, she even helped head an initiative in 2020 to try and help front-line workers across Canada get personal protective equipment.
“When we went back into the hospital for our rotations, I was coming home everyday and have a 21-year-old son who is crippled with anxiety over ‘Mom, please don’t kill Grandma and Grandpa”, because my Mom and Dad live right next door to us,” she said. “So there was that sort of fear at the start of the pandemic.”
She now works in the emergency department at a Toronto hospital, and says that the struggles she went through in her career as a hockey player helped to strengthen her for this type of stress.
When Wickenheiser first started playing hockey as a young girl in Saskatchewan, she played exclusively on boys’ teams and had to change clothes in places like the boiler room because there was no locker room for her.
“As a young kid growing up, I didn’t know any differently, so it was just like, this is what you’re going to have to endure if you want to play the game,” she said. “Now that I look back, I’m grateful for all of the adversity that I have had through my career and my life, just because I feel like I’ve developed a lot of resiliency and ability to cope with difficult things, with criticism.
“When you’re going through medicine, you hit your residency, every day you go into work, someone’s telling you something to do better or what you’re doing wrong, and if you aren’t able to handle that it can be a soul-crushing experience.”
She added that she is glad that the sport has come farther now, and that young girls no longer have the same hoops to jump through that she did.
“You can walk in a rink with a bag and a stick over your shoulder and nobody’s looking twice like they did when I played the game, so it’s come a long way,” she said.
Wickenheiser said that the high-pressure situation of a hockey game was not so different from working in the medical field.
“It’s the same kind of pressures. The stakes are much higher in the hospital for sure, when you have people’s lives in your hands, but everything I learned in sport I use every single day in the hospital,” she said.
Since the pandemic started, Wickenheiser has been promoted to senior director of player development for the Leafs, continuing to juggle her work with the team with her medical work.
Her new book detailing her journey came out earlier this week. And her current, ongoing goal? Helping to campaign for Canadians to get their shot.
“Everyone: get vaccinated, and then we’ll get through this,” she said.
It’s just one more mission for this unstoppable Canadian.