When it comes to growing and advancing the sport of women's ice hockey at the international level, it's hard to imagine a better ambassador than Canadian star Hayley Wickenheiser.
Organizers of the 2010 Molson Canadian World Hockey Summit obviously agree, naming her to a leadership team that also includes NHL executives Brian Burke
and Steve Yzerman
and current player Daniel Alfredsson
Wickenheiser, a member of Canada's National Women's Team since the age of 15, has played in all four Olympics since women's hockey was introduced as a medal event in 1998. Earlier this year, at the Vancouver Games, she became the all-time leading Olympic goal scorer en route to leading Canada to its third gold medal in four tries.
She's also led her country to countless gold medals at the World Championships, 4 Nations Cup and other international tournaments, and played in men's leagues in Finland and Sweden, becoming the first woman to score a goal playing in a men's professional league. Now she'll be part of a brain trust seeking ways to keep the sport of women's hockey headed in the right direction.
"My role might be to offer some insight into my experience in where the future of the female game can be and where it's going," Wickenheiser told NHL.com. "Not only playing in Canada but around the world, including on the men's side. Also bringing together people in the game to talk about the issues that need to be addressed -- where we're at in terms of athletes' development, professional women's hockey down the road, the NHL's involvement, all of that. I see myself learning as much as being involved."
A primary concern would seem to be closing the gap between Canada and the United States -- which have combined for seven of the eight berths in the four gold-medal games at the Olympics -- and the remainder of the countries with women's hockey programs. In the preliminary round at the Vancouver Games, Canada routed Slovakia 18-0 and Sweden 13-1, while the U.S. scored a 13-0 win over Russia.
"I think it's a combination of having patience and knowing the men's game was once exactly where the women's game is," Wickenheiser said. "You still see blowouts in the World Juniors in men's hockey. You have to be careful to say the game's not competitive, but when Canada is beating Slovakia 18-0 you need to see what they can do to close the gap."
Wickenheiser pointed out that while Canada has in the neighborhood of 90,000 women playing hockey, the number is closer to 6,000 in a nation like Sweden, making it harder to compete since the talent pool is not anywhere near as deep.
In spite of that and what some of the game results might suggest, she doesn't believe the balance between the top four or five nations is as far away as some might believe.
"I've seen a variety of interesting things" over her 16-year career with Canada's National Team, Wickenheiser said. "Finland might have had the best team I've ever seen around 1999 to 2001-02, the strongest team they've ever fielded. Now they're a young group rebuilding. They made progress and took a step back, now they're trying to make progress again.
"Sweden didn't have a very good showing at the Vancouver Olympics -- they underachieved with the talent they had. They have a lot of good players and talent, and I don't know if they were performing to their level. I don't know if the talent gap is that wide, to be honest. We've had a flip-flop on the podium every Olympic Games since 1998, there has never been the same countries going gold-silver-bronze consecutively.
"An interesting country we need to look at now is Russia, and what they can do with their program, hosting the Olympics four year from now. What are they going to do to develop hockey in their country?"
Wickenheiser played in men's leagues in Finland in 2003 and 2004, and in Sweden in 2007 and 2008, not only becoming a pioneer of the sport but picking up new ideas about the game along the way.
She praised the Swedish development model for its young players, noting a late-bloomer like the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg
might never have made it to the NHL if he grew up in Canada, where the patience to wait around on his potential wouldn't have lasted as long.
"My role might be to offer some insight into my experience in where the future of the female game can be and where it's going. Not only playing in Canada but around the world, including on the men's side." -- Hayley Wickenheiser
"They also focus on their best coaches working with their youngest players, and in North America it's kind of the opposite," she said. "We need to put our best coaches with our youngest players and develop their skill level to feed up to the elite level."
As an example, Wickenheiser identified Swedish ice hockey club Modo, which grooms its players from a young age to eventually come up and play for the elite team, and said Canada could aspire to set up a similar model.
In other words, the World Hockey Summit will be a sharing of knowledge and ideas, not a venue where the current powerhouses in the game flaunt their superiority.
"I think it's not about reinventing the wheel, it's about countries and Hockey Canada and the USA offering resources," Wickenheiser said. "There are long-term development plans in place for these countries to look at, evaluate and use. We want to grow the game, not be exclusive about keeping all the ideas, but share ideas with the rest of the world and push the federations and the people in power positions to want to make change."