SOCHI — Hayley Wickenheiser not only will carry the Canadian flag in the opening ceremonies on Friday, the hockey legend also carries high hopes for a fourth-consecutive Olympic gold medal and for the women's game as a whole.
But before her work on the ice begins, she's going to savour a special moment at Sochi's Fisht Olympic stadium on Friday.
"Just going to enjoy it and take it all in and, you know, honour the fact that I have this opportunity and that my family is going to be in the building," said Wickenheiser, who hails from Shaunavon, Sask.
"So it's going to be a fun night, said the Olympic veteran," who will have 11 family members in Sochi.
The 35-year-old Wickenheiser is well aware that if the women's tournament evolves as presumed with a Canada-United States gold-medal final on Feb. 20, the scrutiny will continue as to whether women's hockey belongs in the Olympics.
But she's been around the international game for two decades, when she cracked the Canadian roster as a 15 year old in 1994, and she sees progress.
Women's game in good shape
“I always worry about the future of women's hockey, mainly because of the fact that most of the world pays attention to women's hockey only for two weeks out of every four years,” Wickenheiser said.
“I don't worry about the women's game when I look at every game and what goes on internationally.
“I look at Team Japan and what [current coach and former Canadian player] Carla MacLeod has been able to do to get that team to an Olympic Games, which is a huge accomplishment for a country. You look at Finland and how they centralize their under-18 and national teams. You look at Sweden and you look at Russia what Alexei Yashin [the team's general manager] has been able to do with his team.”
Still, the Russians, Swedes, Finns and Swiss need to exhibit that they have closed the gap. But that won't be easy because Canada and the U.S. continue to elevate its level of play.
“This is a dilemma women's hockey is always going to face. But the reality is we're so much further ahead in this time span than say where men's hockey was in [after the first five Olympics]. I think the [women's] game has really come a long way in five Olympics.”
Will this be Wickenheiser's final Olympics? She won't decide on whether to continue or conclude her decorated career, that includes three Olympic gold medals, seven world championships and playing pro men's hockey in Finland and Sweden, until after the final buzzer sounds in Sochi.
So what keeps Wickenheiser's competitive clock ticking?
“The No. 1 thing is a love of sport,” said the six-time Olympian said, who also competed for Canada in softball at the 2000 Sydney Games. “I've loved hockey since the day I first put on skates when I was five years old. I have had a passion to play all these years.
“I love being part of Team Canada and having the opportunity to win, and that's the main driving force now.”
Nagano loss still hurts
She forgot to mention that she's never been a good loser. At a team gathering on Monday evening, Wickenheiser and Hefford and assistant coach Daniel Goyette described the emptiness and hurt they felt when they finished second in 1998.
“The worst thing in the world is to stand on the blue line with a silver medal around your neck,” she said.
“It stays with you for a while.”
There was some speculation that Wickenheiser wouldn't be around for the Sochi Games. There was some thought her game had dropped off and she was dealing with some injuries.
“You battle injuries and you go through a lot of things as an athlete, but I could picture in my mind what I needed to do to get ready to play in these Games,” she said. “I guess it's always a fragile existence as an athlete. Any day something can happen and your games are over, like we saw yesterday with the snowboarder (Norway slopestyle gold-medal contender Torstein Horgmo broke his collarbone during a trail run).
“I'm very grateful to be sitting here … and to have had the longevity I've had.”
(With files from CBC Saskatchewan)