Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser on how to lead by example

“You should be willing to get down in the trenches. How can you lead if you can’t relate?”

 
Team Canada women’s hockey captain Hayley Wickenheiser holding the Canadian flag at the 2014 Sochi Olympics
“I’m not a big rah-rah kind of leader. I lead by example.” (Doug Pensinger/Getty)

As team captain of Canada’s Olympic hockey team, Hayley Wickenheiser has won more gold medals than any other Canadian. The Wickenheiser Female World Hockey Festival takes place Nov. 27 to 30 in Calgary, bringing together girls’ hockey teams from as far away as Mexico and Finland for tournament play, skills camps and clinics.


In the past, I’ve heard you preach the value of a good night’s sleep. How many hours are we talking?

Well, last night I got about 12, but I was catching up after an exhausting week. Usually I’m about eight or nine. I remember at the 2006 Olympics, I was talking to Ryan Smyth, who was playing for the national team and the Oilers at the time. He told me that rest is a weapon. I laughed, but those words really stuck with me. It applies particularly to being an athlete, but I think it’s true of any profession, regardless of physicality. A lot of times the fatigue isn’t so much physical as it is mental. Sleep allows you to think more quickly, operate more efficiently, make more rational decisions.

And yet we always hear about super successful business leaders, like Martha Stewart and Donald Trump, who get three or four hours.

I think our society has this perception that busy is better, more is better. I just don’t think that’s the case, at least not always. Those are incredibly successful people, but I would argue that their health might not be so good.

I guess you could also argue that both Trump and Stewart have made some errors in the rational decisions department.

That’s true. Maybe they should have taken more naps.

You’ve been a team captain, and now you give seminars about leader­ship. Do you have an overarching philosophy?

I’m not a big rah-rah kind of leader. I lead by example. Just from a basic buy-in standpoint, you can’t really expect your team to put in the kind of work and training that is necessary for excellence if you’re slacking off. Even if you’re the CEO of a major corporation, you should be willing to get down in the trenches with your team. How can you lead if you can’t relate?

This month you’re hosting the fifth annual Wickenheiser World Female Hockey Festival. What was your goal in starting the tournament?

I had started to think about my legacy and what I wanted to contribute to hockey after I wasn’t playing anymore. The vision of the festival has always been the development of the holistic athlete, not just a good hockey player. Right now in this country, there are a lot of parents who subscribe to the idea you have to play hockey 12 months a year in order to become good, and I totally disagree. You can play lots of sports to develop yourself as a well-rounded athlete. We look at both the physical and mental, and even the spiritual aspect of sport, which is how I approach the game.

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What is the best advice you have to offer the Hayley Wickenheisers of tomorrow?

I definitely try to teach them about the importance of tenacity. That is something that’s been so important in my professional career and also in other projects. Getting Wickfest off the ground took a lot of pushing.

Speaking of tenacity, did you really play at the Sochi Olympics with a broken foot?

I did. It was tough, but I was able to do it with the help of our medical team. It’s totally different than, say, if I was a runner. My foot was in a boot, so it’s not the same impact.

You’ve said the win in Sochi was particularly sweet because you were able to prove people wrong.

Last year was a challenging one for us as a team, and a lot of people questioned if we could win the gold medal. We had lost a lot of games and weren’t playing consistently. I felt like there were some doubters in terms of my game in particular and whether I was still as good. I had a lot to prove. I think I had a pretty good Olympics.

Do you feel like you face a larger degree of age scrutiny because of your gender?

Yes, I do. A 36-year-old male in the NHL now has five to seven years more to play if they’ve taken care of their body and if they’re an elite player. Look at Teemu Selänne, Niklas Lidström, Chris Chelios, Daniel Alfredsson—all playing in their 40s. Society has a hard time with a woman who still wants to compete. Like, shouldn’t she be doing something else? Fortunately, once you step on the ice, nobody looks at birth certificates.

For several years, you were the only female player in the Finnish Mestis men’s league. I imagine you have some interesting tales.

Probably the most ridiculous experience was a playoff game in a place called Savonlinna. The coach was very vocal about not wanting me in the league. When I got there, they told me I would have to change with the cheerleaders. The women had to stand to the side of the dressing room so I could skip for a few minutes to warm up. None of them spoke English. You learn to roll with that kind of negativity and let it fuel the fire so you can be even better.

Are you still planning to play in the 2018 Games?

The truth is, we don’t know where anyone will be in four years. It’s what I would love to do, and it’s what I’m working toward every single day. Beyond that, we’ll see.

Which was the greater honour: a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame or your own video game avatar?

Oh, that’s a tough one. The Walk of Fame star is neat because you’re immortalized in your home country. When I look through the list of inductees, it’s a pretty accomplished group. It’s like, really? I play hockey. I’m from Saskatchewan. But within my profession, the video game avatar is huge because there are so few female avatars. To me, it’s an honour that means being respected among your peers, not just in women’s hockey but in the game in general.

Have you ever played as yourself?

I barely know how to. Doug Gilmour and I played a game against one another. We each played our own avatar, and we were both really bad. The dexterity from hockey does not translate at all.

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