Regarded as one of the greatest female hockey players in the world, Hayley Wickenheiser retired with a new plan in mind: to grow hockey internationally.
Wickenheiser, a center from Shaunavon, Canada, retired Jan. 13, 2017, after 23 seasons with the national women's team. She played 276 international games for Canada, scoring 379 points (168 goals, 211 assists), the women's record for most career points. She won four gold medals and a silver medal in five Olympic appearances with Canada (51 points in 26 games). In 2013, Wickenheiser became the first female to play pro hockey in Europe playing on a men's team in Finland.
She decided to start WickFest in 2010, creating an annual festival in Calgary helping to develop girls in hockey at the grassroots level. WickFest has more than 2,500 females who come from across the globe to participate in the festival, making it the largest all-girl hockey tournament in the world.
"We realized through WickFest that we could do some really good international development work through hockey," Wickenheiser said. "Especially [in] girl's hockey because if you look at female hockey in the world, the places where female hockey is the most successful and the most developed also mirrors the countries in the world that treat women the best."
Wickenheiser, 39, said she was surprised when a women's team from Mexico contacted her about coming to WickFest.
"It was like 'Oh, they play hockey in Mexico?' I think they have one rink in Mexico City and I was surprised at how good they were," Wickenheiser said.
"When they first came to WickFest, their skates were horribly sharpened. There was no way that anyone could skate on these skates. When we finally sharpened their skates properly and got them equipment that fit, it didn't take them long, because they were good athletes, to really pick up the sport. They already knew how to play the game a little bit … I was very surprised in how quickly they caught on and so, that was pretty unique."
Although the NHL will host the 2017 NHL China Games presented by O.R.G., two preseason games between the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks in Shanghai on Sept. 21, and Beijing on Sept. 23, Wickenheiser already has been working with the Chinese government. She hosted two camps in Harbin and Shanghai in July.
Wickenheiser had the opportunity to expand interest of hockey in China and also had former teammate and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Danielle Goyette coach the girls. Other former coaches and teammates of Wickenheiser also helped out.
"We've been connected with various levels of the government [in China]," Wickenheiser said. "The hockey system used to be run by the government and they would sort of just run it from the top down and now the way that hockey is sort of being approached, it's much more similar to the way that we do it here in Canada and the USA where the Chinese Ice Hockey Association is sort of going through a rebirth. Instead of rinks that if you owned a rink then you basically owned hockey in that area, we've been working with the Chinese Ice Hockey Association to speak to them and advise them with how to move forward with the grass-roots and development of the game."
Wickenheiser plans on using ProSmart Sports, a company she's is involved in, to teach others the game when resources are limited. ProSmart uses a platform that personalizes instructional videos, interactive coaching tools, specialized drills and more, designed to enhance hockey knowledge.
"I think what a country like China really needs more than anything is boots on the ground people to physically go there and teach coaches, run hockey schools and give proper instruction, but when you can't do that- you have to find a way that kids and coaches can access good materials," she said.
Wickenheiser is looking forward to the NHL expanding globally.
"I think it's the smart play to grow the game," she said. "I think the NHL has started to make some ways into China for obvious reason being that the [Asian] market is just so big with the next two [winter] Olympics being there (2018 Pyeongchang, 2022 Beijing).
"I think if you want to grow the game you really need to truly make it an international game. It would be great to see hockey reach out a little more to non-traditional markets and to try to promote itself in the game... Not even so much for people to play the game, but for people to watch the game, for people to be engaged in whatever their favorite team may be and economically it would make a lot of sense. It would be good for the game of hockey."