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She was 18 years old the first time I saw her wearing Canadian Red and playing at the women’s world hockey championships in Kitchener.
She was the player you couldn’t stop watching.
She was The One.
Hayley Wickenheiser was so quiet back then — shy, uncomfortable around a camera or a notebook, speaking in as few words and as many clichés as possible, sounding like just about every other teenage hockey player we hear who hopes the inquisitors will go away.
That really was the beginning of her public life. In many ways, we’ve been along for the ride with Wickenheiser ever since. We watched her play hockey in five Winter Olympics, winning four gold medals for Canada. We’ve watched her grow up, almost before our very eyes.
You might remember, if you remember things like this, she was a backup infielder on the Canadian softball team at the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney and, four years later, the quiet girl who didn’t care for microphones was doing television coverage on the largest sporting event in the world. I remember joking to her about doing television on a national network.
You might remember she was the woman — the one non-goal-playing woman — working in men’s professional hockey in Finland and, in between that, winning more medals at Olympics and world championships. She was breaking down barriers with every stride she took.
That was before the Hockey Hall of Fame called. That was before she played her final Olympic Games in Sochi on a Bobby Baun broken foot. That was before she got to parade her son, Noah, around the ice of Salt Lake City in 2002, flashing her gold medal and proudly carrying her pride and joy. That was before she announced her retirement. And that was before she decided to go to medical school — to become Dr. Wickenheiser, I presume — and to do all this while being a mom and growing into her 40s.
Who does that?
Who can do that?
Really, Wickenheiser has grown into our own version of Oprah, in a very different kind of way in a different kind of country, a woman who can do just about anything and everything and, probably when necessary, slip on the cape and become Canada’s Superwoman. She’s Captain Canada, the female version.
We all need heroes of some kind. Right now more than ever. We need people to look up to, people to admire, people to believe in. Hayley Wickenheiser isn’t a figure. She’s flesh and blood and heart and oh-so-Canadian.
There was Wickenheiser on social media on Twitter on Sunday night, with the country on hold, a lot of us alone or afraid or both, reaching out and asking for surgical masks and gloves and necessary equipment for medical workers in front-line peril because of COVID-19. She was asking others to be as involved as she was.
Before you knew it, the famous Canadian actor, Ryan Reynolds, was right alongside her, working to support Wickenheiser, helping in any way he can. And that’s Reynolds, who has 15.7 million followers on Twitter. It may not be the 111 million that Justin Bieber has, but it’s a lot. A whole lot.
Reynolds did his interview for the news over his cellphone and Wickenheiser was in Burlington, Ont., on Monday night, wearing Canada’s red on the national news shots, helping to unload boxes from trucks, rolling up her sleeves, giving back, being prominent, standing in front of the cameras and the microphone, standing tall, standing smart. She was confident, sharp. But more than anything else, she was involved when involvement of some kind matters most.
She probably deserves an Order of Canada for everything she’s done on so many levels, but she already has one. She probably deserves a place in the Hall of Fame, but she’s already been a first-ballot entry into that house. There’s nothing left to give her except maybe more of our admiration.
The worst of times can bring out the best in people in this country. We’ve seen that before. We’re seeing that again on a variety of levels.
Her world started in sports, that little girl who dressed by herself in the arena for games played mostly by boys. The little girl who never felt like part of a team until she got on the ice. Then she kept her hair just short enough so that not everybody would notice who she was.
All these years and all these accomplishments later, everybody notices who she is and what she’s become — and how much of a Canadian treasure she’s grown into.
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