Hayley Wickenheiser pushed herself to be the best as an athlete. She's still pushing herself, going into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 18 while going to medical school at the University of Calgary and working as an assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
She knew the Hockey Hall of Fame would announce the Class of 2019 on June 25 but couldn't sit by the phone.
"I had stuff to do," she said with a laugh.
Hockey Hall of Fame officials couldn't reach her after her selection, because she was in a code blue simulation. In other words, she was practicing resuscitating someone in cardiopulmonary arrest. No phones allowed.
Eventually, she pulled out her phone, saw missed calls from the 416 Toronto area code and read text messages congratulating her. She called Hockey Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald on her way home.
Wickenheiser had dueling dreams as a kid: to win the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers and go to Harvard Medical School. She was inspired by a neighborhood girl seriously injured in an accident.
"She ended up being OK, and I just remember that event being very life-changing for me, being in the hospital every day and seeing how the doctors and nurses treated her and just feeling like that's something I'd want to do," Wickenheiser said. "It's always sort of since then just really been something I thought I would see myself doing outside of being involved with hockey. It's something I could find that was close to what hockey would be like."
Wickenheiser is in her second of three years of med school. She's studying general medicine now but would like to specialize in emergency medicine.
Starting in January, she will spend six months doing electives in Toronto. She said she probably will end up doing her residency there too. But since the Maple Leafs hired her Aug. 28, 2018, she has been living in Calgary and commuting to Toronto four to 10 days per month.
Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas said Wickenheiser has been a massive resource for both players and staff, mostly with Toronto of the American Hockey League and Newfoundland of the ECHL. She watches video, goes on the ice and helps build development plans, providing the insight only a world-class player can.
Last season, a player was struggling. The Maple Leafs had Wickenheiser visit with the player and talk to the coaching staff.
"The thing that Hayley has about her is, she has a certain empathy and ability to understand people and where they're at, and then she also has the ability of understanding what it takes to operate at a very high level," Dubas said. "So it's connecting the two. I could go in and read a player the riot act, but I can't speak to what it's like to play in a gold medal game and be the best player in the world and make the types of sacrifice it takes to get there."
At development camp each summer, the Maple Leafs have a staff summit. One night, they have staff members make presentations. This year, Wickenheiser spoke about performing under the pressure of high expectations.
She once wore a maple leaf on her jersey. It was red instead of blue.
"I thought it was very poignant for all of our staff because of the market we play in and the different things that happen," Dubas said. "It's very interesting to hear the way she spoke about life with Team Canada, the expectation that you're going to win all the time, how you deal with it and how you use that energy. …
"Rather than look at it as a burden, it should be looked at as something you've earned because of the work that you've put in. So you shouldn't shrink from it. You should be proud when you get to that point and be excited about it."
The 41-year-old carries weight with everyone, especially the Canadian players. She represented the country at the Olympics five times (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014) and won four gold medals.
"I'm not sure that the young, young players know as much about me, but I generally say that the better the player, the higher the level, the less of an issue it is for me," she said. "Most, if not all, of the Leafs at some point have come up. We've chatted, or they've said, 'Congratulations on the Hall of Fame.' I think when I talk to them, there's a mutual respect."
Actually, Dubas used a stronger word.
"You never know how it's going to go, because you don't know if there's an underlying [attitude of], 'Yes, but she's a woman hockey player. She never played in the NHL. Women's hockey's different,' " Dubas said. "I'm not afraid to say it. You're worried about it at first.
"But then watching the way she carries herself when she walks in, the players, even our best players, there's a reverence that they have for Hayley when she arrives and she's in the building.
Top photo by Mark Blinch, Toronto Maple Leafs