Hayley Wickenheiser, captain of Canada’s gold-medal-winning women’s hockey team, is the game’s most decorated female player, with more goals, assists, penalty minutes and medals in international play (including three Olympic golds and a silver) than any other woman. Her new memoir, Gold Medal Diary, recounts her experience of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the gruelling six-month lead-up to the Games, and juggling life with her 10-year-old son, Noah.
Q: Is there a difference between the way Scott Niedermayer led the men’s Olympic hockey team and the way you led the women?
A: Definitely. I’ve played professional men’s hockey and women’s hockey. Men will take direction and criticism more directly than women will. Women want to know why things are done. Men need to be told how and what. Sometimes there’s emotion involved. Not that there isn’t with the men, but the men are used to very direct communication, whereas with the women, it needs to be softened, put properly.
Q: You’re not the type of person who needs a lot of praise or positive reinforcement, but some on your team needed it. How did you learn to deliver it?
A: It’s not really a strength of mine. I really had to take the extra time to talk individually to players and take an interest in what was going on off the ice. You really have to invest emotionally, because people only really care about whether you can inspire them, and they can relate to you.
Q: In your book you write about an incident at a boot camp in Dawson Creek, B.C., before the Games that gave you real insight into your then-new role as captain. What did you learn in Dawson?
A: We had a race that involved a run, a bike and a hike. We were divided up into teams, and I was one of the players designated to bike. My bike broke down. One of my teammates came up behind me and asked what she could do to help. I was a stronger biker. My goal of the whole day was for our team to win. So I wanted to do the best thing for the team to achieve that. I said: “I’ll take your bike.” I grabbed her bike and carried on, because it was about who crossed the finish line first. As it turned out, we won. But I found out later she was crushed that I took her bike—that I didn’t believe she was capable of doing the job. That was a crucial in-the-moment mistake for me. She was very sensitive about it, and it turned into a bit of drama that we had to work through. Showing I had confidence in her abilities would have done more for our team than finishing first. That was a valuable lesson for me.
Q: Being an athlete, you write, is “an extremely selfish existence.” What do you mean?
A: It’s the lifestyle—it’s so much more than just going to the rink, and stepping on the ice and playing. Your performance starts the moment you get up in the morning. You’re concerned about what you eat, how you sleep, the training you’re doing, how you feel—everything that’s going on in your life. You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. You’re always in performance or training mode. Sometimes this lifestyle is hard on your family.
Q: Your partner Tomas Pacina has coached you before. Has he ever benched you?
A: We’ve had our share of disagreements. I’ve missed a few shifts in the past [laughs].
Q: To not let the game completely take over, you need an outlet away from the rink. For you, that often means spending time with your 10-year-old son Noah, doesn’t it?
A: Yes—I don’t have a lot of extra time. If I’m not in hockey, or working, or doing school, I’m generally hanging out with him.
Q: Tomas is a skills development coach who works with a number of elite players and teams. So both of Noah’s parents’ lives revolve entirely around the game. What does he think of hockey?
A: He would tell you it’s boring [laughs]. He’s a swimmer and a skier. Hockey’s never been something he’s gravitated to. Even as a baby, when I’d put him in skates, he wasn’t interested. I think for him, his parents are always gone when it comes to hockey, so there’s a bit of a negative association to the game. As long as he can skate, I don’t worry too much.
Q: It doesn’t bug you?
A: Not at all. I’m actually relieved I don’t have to go to another rink [laughs].
Q: People might assume you’re a very competitive, obsessive sports parent?
A: I’m the polar opposite on the ice [laughs]. But as a swim mother, I kind of laugh at other parents who get really into it. I’m just not like that. Maybe it’s because I’m like that myself, as an athlete. Plus, I understand the type of pressure that can be put on kids. Whether he finishes first or last, I really don’t care, as long as he’s got a smile on his face. I just enjoy watching him in general.
Q: You write that Noah once told you he “loves you, but he doesn’t know that he likes you, because you’re gone all the time.” That’s rough.
A: Yeah. That’s a reality—I live in constant guilt. I’ve realized that when I am here it’s really important for me to be present, to not be consumed by other things—to listen to him when he wants to talk about something, play Star Wars, Lego.
Q: You brought Tomas and Noah with you to Sweden where you played men’s pro hockey the season before last. Did you need them there with you?
A: I wouldn’t have gone to Sweden without them. I did that in Finland in ’02-’03. Noah was quite young at the time. You just miss out on so much. For me, it wasn’t worth [going to Sweden] without them there.
Q: How did playing pro hockey in Sweden differ from your stint in Finland, which was a challenging period for you.
A: Finland was an isolating experience because I was there alone, and I didn’t know anybody for the first little while. I was really adjusting to a whole new culture, and lifestyle. I learned a lot about resiliency and about what it takes to be at my best every day. I had no choice—I had to, to get the ice time. The big difference was the support that I had in Sweden, with my family there—and the culture. Sweden is an easier country to live in. Also, I was eight years older. I’d been around, I knew what to expect.
Q: But you’re staying in Calgary this season. You’ve decided to play for the University of Calgary Dinos, and finish off your kinesiology degree. What would you like to do afterwards?
A: I’d love to go into medicine.
Q: Is there something about hockey that lends itself to medicine?
A: It’s the challenge of every day having to be on your toes and never doing the same thing twice—which is what hockey is like, and what appeals to me about medicine.
Q: I remember an interview with you ahead of the Games. You sounded pretty sick, but I don’t think anyone in Canada knew quite how sick you were.
A: Yeah—in our last training camp in Jasper, I was sick for quite a while. Finally, I went into the hospital, they did a chest X-ray and found out I had pneumonia.
Q: Did that freak you out: pneumonia, days ahead of the Olympics?
A: I wasn’t worried. I knew if I needed to play through it for a couple more weeks, I would make it through. You forget about it in the moment and focus on what you need to do, and what’s important. But a couple of days on the antibiotics, once I figured out what it was, I was feeling quite good by the time we hit Vancouver, but there was a couple of weeks where it wasn’t going very well.
Q: You delivered the athlete’s oath at the opening ceremonies, an event seen by tens of millions of people around the world. Any butterflies?
A: I was very nervous beforehand, sitting in the green room. But I was able to watch all the great performers. That really put me at ease. I had this sense of calm that came over me when we went out to do it. When you got out there, it just looked like you were speaking to a sea of white.
Q: You weren’t allowed to tell anyone but you must have broken down and told your family?
A: I did—I wanted my mom and dad to be there. We were able to get them opening ceremonies tickets. My best friend and Noah came. That was special, to have them there.
Q: Thirteen days later, you blanked the U.S. 2-0 to win gold. Do you remember what you were thinking as the clock ticked down?
A: At the 10-minute mark, I was thinking: “Get this over.” By the time it ticked down, I was just thinking: “Thank God this is over.” There was a real sense of relief. In the last seconds, I looked into the crowd, and really cherished the moment, because I’d forgotten to do that in so many wins in Olympics before.
Q: A win like that, in your own barn, and you feel relief more than anything?
A: It had been a very long year—a lot of preparation. Our team had gone through a lot. When you play hockey in Canada there’s only one medal to win. You feel that as a player, from a very young age.
Q: Prime Minister Stephen Harper wore your jersey to the gold medal game. Do you remember what he said to you afterwards?
A: You can say what you want about the Prime Minister, maybe he is a little dry, but he came into our dressing room afterwards and said: “Hey, every medal is great at the Olympics, but we know which medals Canada is passionate about.”