TORONTO — There was no suspense on Monday night. No, it was another seemingly inevitable moment for the greatest women’s hockey player of all-time, as Hayley Wickenheiser took her rightful place in hockey’s hallowed Hall.
Wickenheiser had been building to that moment ever since she blazed onto the scene in 1994 at age 15, the youngest to ever represent Team Canada at the World Championship.
“My roommate that first year was Margot Page. She was a Grade 10 math teacher and I was a Grade 10 student,” Wickenheiser said in her speech. “I feel bad. A 15-year-old roommate could not have been that much fun for her.”
In short order, Wickenheiser became an icon – not just in Canada, but as the face of women’s hockey around the world. Four Olympic gold medals, twice named the MVP of the Olympic tournament, seven World Championship golds, and a host of records that may well never be broken.
So yes, Monday night’s induction seemed inevitable, until Wickenheiser pinched all of us living in the 2019 world and reminded us that growing up in Shaunavon, Sask., in the 1980s was a different place for a little girl who just wanted to be a hockey player.
“She was never afraid of anything,” said fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Danielle Goyette. “There’s one thing about ‘Wick.’ She wanted to be the best and she wanted to prove it to you that she was the best, and she did anything in her power to make it happen.”
Wickenheiser, now 41, was never afraid. She was also never afraid to be different, whether it was growing up, during her 23 years with Team Canada, or on Monday night, when she yielded time during her speech so fellow inductee Vaclav Nedomansky could return to the stage so he could thank his wife, whom he somehow forgot to mention.
“I wanted to play the game so bad that I didn’t care what I had to endure,” Wickenheiser said, “And looking back as a little girl at that time, it was a lot.”
Her stories made the hair on your neck stand up.
Wickenheiser shared how she was the only girl at a hockey school once in Regina. There was no place for her to sleep since it was a boys’ camp. But they did have one little room at the Regina Agridome if she was interested in staying.
“It was in an usher’s closet,” Wickenheiser said. “And so my brother felt sorry for me, so he and I jammed ourselves into this closet and slept there for a week so I could go to the hockey school.”
Or how about that time that Wickenheiser developed an ulcer, she said, as she played Bantam AAA against the boys?
“I wasn’t nervous to get hit, or to go on the ice. That’s actually where I felt good,” Wickenheiser said. “It was when I had to come to the rink and change in the bathroom and then walk through the lobby of all the parents and the comments and all of the harassment that I would often hear.
“I started to get good and I was taking the spot of another boy and people didn’t like that too much.”
Wickenheiser said all of those comments, all of those moments gave her “thick skin and resilience.”
“They taught me not to listen to the critical opinion of others,” she said.
It served her so well. To be sure, Wickenheiser was not the first to take that abuse, not by a longshot. When Wickenheiser made it to Canada’s national women’s program in 1994, her teammates were twice her age. It is undoubtedly the Angela Jameses, the Geraldine Heaneys, the Danielle Goyettes and the Jayna Heffords that all helped pave the path for her in Canada.
"Those women gave up their careers, they fought for relevance, instead of asking what the game could give them, they asked what they could give the game," Wickenheiser said. "That changed my life forever."
If they paved the path for Wickenheiser, she then laid more miles down. She became the first women’s player to play professional men’s hockey in Finland. She became the first woman to skate in an NHL development camp with the Philadelphia Flyers. She became the first (and still only) woman to work in the NHL full-time in an on-ice development role.
“Bob Clarke gave me a chance to become a better hockey player because he looked at me as just a hockey player,” Wickenheiser said. “I’m grateful to the Toronto Maple Leafs, to Kyle [Dubas] and Brendan [Shanahan], and the development staff that I work with every day. They hired me not because I was a woman, but because they think I’m good enough to help their hockey team.”
Wickenheiser was a pioneer not because she was an outstanding player, but because she was fearless. She was never satisfied. She marched to the beat of her own drum, sometimes to the chagrin of her own teammates.
“I will always have respect for her,” Goyette said. “Not a lot of people would put themselves out there like she did.”
Really, the only thing inevitable on Monday was that Wickenheiser put herself out there again, using her incredible platform for the good of the game.
When Nedomansky finished thanking his family once and for all, Wickenheiser quipped: “All is right in the world tonight.”
And for a few moments, it was indeed, that little girl from Shaunavon serving as the brightest star in the Hockey Hall of Fame’s 2019 induction class.
“If [girls] decide to play hockey, they can walk into a hockey rink anywhere in Canada with a hockey bag and a hockey stick over their shoulder and no one is going to look twice,” Wickenheiser said. “The road is just a little bit easier. The game is truly for everyone.”
Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli