Yahoo! Exclusive: Hayley Wickenheiser predicts women’s pro hockey league within 10 years

She’s been called the greatest female hockey player in the world, but Canada women’s national ice hockey team captain Hayley Wickenheiser says she wouldn’t be shattering records and scooping up Olympic medals if it weren’t for the community hockey coaches who mentored her in her youth. Now as part of the Kraft Hockey Goes On program, the 34-year-old hopes to honour the volunteers who give so much of themselves to our budding superstars.

Yahoo! Canada News: You’ve joined an initiative that’s looking to reward community hockey programs across the country. Is there someone in particular who influenced you when you were a young player?

Wickenheiser: Ken Billington was one of my first coaches and one of the first people in my life outside of my parents who really believed in me, not just as a hockey player but being a girl who was playing on all-boys teams. He went out of his way to mentor me and coach me. I think he recognized that I had talent at a young age. To this day, when I go back to my hometown I always try to seek him out.

Yahoo! Canada News: Do you think guys like Ken are the exception or the norm in community hockey?

Wickenheiser: I think they’re more the norm than the exception. Talk to any athlete at the elite level and they’ll give you an example. But also if you talk to any guy who’s playing beer league hockey at 10 on a Tuesday night, he’s going to have somebody that influenced him, too. That’s just one of the beautiful things about the game of hockey: we connect with people through the game.

[ Video: Wickenheiser a rare female character in NHL video game ]

Yahoo! Canada News: How would you mentor young women who’d like to follow in your skate strides?

Wickenheiser: I’m of the belief that you don’t need perfect circumstances to succeed or to get through adversity and I’m a perfect example: I grew up in a small town where I was the only girl playing and we didn’t have much. I had a rink in my backyard. I’d say you have to have thick skin and you have to be willing not to listen to the critical opinion of others if you really want to go a long way. And try to find a way to believe in yourself when no one else does. It’s hard for young girls, especially getting into your teenaged years. You’re a little more influenced and maybe fragile in confidence and self-esteem at that time in your life, so having the right people around you to support you is also really important.

Wickenheiser: "Winning still continues to be the number one goal."Yahoo! Canada News: Is that part of the reason you got involved in the Kraft Hockey Goes On program?

Wickenheiser: The program is really about recognizing people who make an impact on the young players that are ultimately our future stars and shining a light on the people who do the everyday work that goes on in every rink across this country but [that] nobody really talks about. The backbone of hockey in this country is built off our volunteers. There are four million of them out there so I think we really need to embrace that and celebrate that spirit.

Yahoo! Canada News: What is it about hockey that you think speaks so deeply to that Canadian spirit?

Wickenheiser: I don’t think there’s another thing in Canada that unites people quite like hockey does. It brings people together, whether you’re old, young, black, white, a new Canadian. It’s something that signifies to the world that this is who we are; it’s our identity. There are other hockey nations, and I’ve lived in Sweden and Finland throughout my career, but the passion for the game [there] doesn’t even come close. Sometimes in Canada I think we could take a piece of their thinking and relax a little bit about the game – we get a little too intense – but for the most part it really is what we do.

Yahoo! Canada News: As captain of the Canada women’s national ice hockey team you’ve hit goals that any pro athlete would dream of reaching. What’s next on the achievement list?

Wickenheiser: Going into Sochi it would be nice to defend the [Olympic] gold! I think one of the [other] goals that’s left in my career is to see professional women’s hockey happen and be part of that somehow. So maybe my goals now have shifted more to off the ice than on but it’s all a package. Winning still continues to be the number one goal, I guess.

Yahoo! Canada News: Though many women are hardcore fans and terrific players in their own right, the men’s version still dominates. Do you think that dial will ever shift?

Wickenheiser: Yeah, I think it will change, but it takes a leadership group of people who are going to make that paradigm shift. Will women’s hockey ever be the NHL? No, it won’t and that’s OK with me because it can be its own brand and stand alone on its own two feet as a good enough game and a good enough product. And I think we’re close to that.

Yahoo! Canada News: So is a professional women’s hockey league something you see happening in the next decade?

Wickenheiser: Yeah, I think 10 years is for sure feasible. There’s a group of people who for many years now have been talking and trying to expand on the idea. I think it comes down to: is the product ready and can the game make money? It’s a business at the end of the day. And if you don’t have TV and corporate sponsorship how can you make a product out of that? So there are a lot of moving parts to it but I think the discussion is happening and that’s a good start.

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Yahoo! Canada News: Are women in the NHL still a pipe dream or is there ever hope it could happen again?

Wickenheiser: No, I think it can [happen], for sure. The women’s league needs the NHL but I think the NHL also needs the women’s game. The NHL needs the market of families and women that are going to pay $40 for a family of four to watch a women’s hockey game so that they’re ready to pay $400 to buy NHL tickets. There’s a gap there in that market that the NHL hasn’t tapped into and it’s a win-win for everyone involved.

Yahoo! Canada News: Speaking of the NHL, what was your take on the lockout? Do you think any progress was made or did it simply result in months of missed ice time?

Wickenheiser: I think it’s a little posturing on both sides. It’s hard to comment because I don’t know all the details – you’re just a fan watching from the outside and hearing details here and there. I think if they wanted to, they certainly could have avoided a half-a-year lockout but there’s a lot of money at stake and a lot of egos at play and that’s just the way these things sometimes play out.

Yahoo! Canada News: Are you glad the season is back on?

Wickenheiser: I’m glad that hockey’s back, but hockey’s always here and sometimes we lose sight of the fact that it’s not just about the NHL. There are so many other levels and people playing across the country to be able to just enjoy the purity of that. It was refreshing. I didn’t miss [the NHL] when it was gone.

The Weekly One-on-One runs each Wednesday
on Yahoo! Canada News.