TORONTO -- Hayley Wickenheiser has been on a lot of benches during her storied career, but never before could she recall standing behind one.
That was until Thursday when Wickenheiser, Canada's all-time leading scorer in women's hockey with 379 points (168 goals, 211 assists) in 276 games, served as one of three coaches for Team White at the Toronto Maple Leafs development camp instra-squad scrimmage.
"Standing behind the bench, that's probably a first for me but it is kind of nice to be back in the game, you kind of get into it a little bit," Wickenheiser said.
Wickenheiser is attending the camp as a guest coach and assisting on the ice with skill development. She received a call from Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas a few months ago inquiring about her interest and jumped at the chance to participate.
"It's just a great opportunity to come and see what it's like here in Leafs land in terms of the type of style and type of game that they want to play which is very similar to the way I think the game should be played," said Wickenheiser, who attended the Philadelphia Flyers rookie camp in 1998 and 1999 as a player. "You can always learn something everywhere you go and maybe I have something to share with them as well."
Does she have any aspirations to stand behind an NHL bench full time?
"Maybe sometimes, it's hard to say," Wickenheiser said. "For me right now, I enjoy player development. I enjoy working with individual players, helping them with their games."
Forward Riley Stotts, who was selected by the Maple Leafs in the third round (No. 83) in the 2018 NHL Draft, was on Team White coached by Wickenheiser and said he enjoyed the chance to work with her.
"It's something that's different but her past is unbelievable with all the accomplishments she's had," Stotts said. "You can really take a lot of stuff from her and the stuff she's seen in her hockey career. It was awesome for us to be able to have that on the bench and be able to learn from her."
Wickenheiser said all the players have been very receptive and eager to learn from her experiences.
"It's first class, I've never had an issue," Wickenheiser said. "The first day, one of the guys came up to me and said, 'We have a lot to learn from you, too.' The moment when they turn and look at you for feedback about what just happened, that's when you know they're interested to know what you have to say and they want to learn. Sometimes maybe it's awkward for them to want to approach me; it's a different environment for them as well. I try to make myself approachable and willing to speak and then you get into a dialogue and it's a lot of fun after that."
In 2019, Wickenheiser will be eligible for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. She was named to Canada's National Women's Team for the first time in January 1994 at the age of 15 and won five Olympic medals, including gold at four consecutive Winter Games (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014). She also won 13 medals (seven gold, six silver) at the IIHF Women's World Championships before retiring in January 2017.
"I don't really think about it for myself," Wickenheiser said. "I'm very happy for Jayna Hefford (who was selected for induction in the 2018 class). It's an absolute no-brainer. She was one of the top five greatest players to ever play the game and always a difference-maker. She scored big goals for us for the national team for so many years so I'm very happy for her and she's the right player that should be in there next. There will be more women as years go on, that's inevitable, and if my day comes, that's great."
Wickenheiser, who intends to pursue a medical degree at some point (she has a Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology and a Masters in Medical Sciences), is not sure where her appearance at development camp will lead, but said she intends to speak with Dubas again about whether there might be a fit for her within the organization.
"If there is a role for me here, that's great moving forward. I'd be interested to see what happens and stay in hockey. That would be fun to do that and see where it takes me at this point," Wickenheiser said. "The best thing about Kyle, I find, is that he's very open to diverse thinking, he's very open to exploring a lot of different ways to make the team better. I really appreciate that. I think that's a winning attitude and it's something I like to be around."
Photo credit: Toronto Maple Leafs