Hayley Wickenheiser, the greatest women’s hockey player in history, ended her decorated career after five Winter Olympics at age 38.
The four-time Olympic champion retired one year before the PyeongChang Winter Games because of “opportunities I couldn’t put off any longer,” including medical school.
Wickenheiser played in her first world championship since the Olympics last season, and had said she wanted to play through 2018, after undergoing left foot surgeries in consecutive years.
“The longer I sat on it, the more I felt it’s the right time,” Wickenheiser said in a Canadian Press interview. “It’s always hard to leave something you love so much behind … and it’s scary to move forward. … Either I rip the Band-Aid off, or you stall on it. It would have been good to go to one more Olympics.”
For the national team, the forward played in 276 games the last 23 years, recording 168 goals and 211 assists, in addition to the five Olympic medals and seven world titles.
Growing up on a Saskatchewan ranch, Wickenheiser caught the Olympic bug watching the 1988 Calgary Games in person, in particular Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykanen.
She would play in the first five Olympic women’s hockey tournaments, starting at age 19 at Nagano 1998. She and teammate Jayna Hefford share the record for most Olympic hockey medals.
Canada lost to the U.S. in the Nagano final but won all of its 20 Olympic hockey games since, including gold-medal finals in Salt Lake City, Torino, Vancouver and Sochi. Wickenheiser was on all of those teams, plus the 2000 Sydney Olympic softball team for Canada, and earned tournament MVP honors in 2002 and 2006.
Wickenheiser also carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony in Sochi and recited the Athletes’ Oath at the Opening Ceremony in Vancouver and was elected to the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission in 2014.
In 33 years playing hockey, Wickenheiser became known for not only her talent but also her leadership and grit.
She was at the center of the 2002 Olympic flag stomping controversy, thanks to a furious interview after the Canadians stunned the U.S. in the Salt Lake City Winter Games final. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada denied that a stomping incident took place, but Wickenheiser has said in recent years that she believes there was something to the rumor.
Wickenheiser also became the first woman to score a goal in a men’s professional league on Jan. 31, 2003, in Finland’s second division.
In 1998 and 1999, she attended the Philadelphia Flyers rookie training camp.
“Kind of plays like [two-time U.S. Olympian] John LeClair, only I think she’s a little meaner,” Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke said in 1998, according to the Canadian Press.
The number of registered female hockey players in Canada went from 16,000 in her first year on the national team to almost 87,000 now, according to the Canadian Press.
“I’m also most proud of the fact that a little girl in this country, 5 years old, can walk into any rink with a hockey bag and stick and not have to run into the bathroom and hide in the bathroom stall like I used to have to, or be afraid that someone would find out she’s a girl,” Wickenheiser said. “For me, that’s a long ways, because I had to go through a lot when I was a kid.”
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