Friday, January 13, 2017

An open letter to Hayley Wickenheiser

"The big girl."

"The brown kid."

"No talent."

No one should ever have to hear these things said about them at any point in their lives, but certainly not when they're 9, 10, 11 years old, and most certainly not from the mouths of adults who are supposed to be better and wiser. But when you're a figure skater - one that doesn't fit the stereotype of the sport - you had better have a thick skin, because these slurs are exactly what you're going to hear.

This was my life as a kid. Actually no, that's not true. Hockey was my life as a kid. From the earliest days I can remember, I wanted to be a hockey player. Not just skate around and score goals. Nope, what I wanted most was to lose my teeth like Gino Odjick, to leap over the boards like Pavel Bure, and to celebrate goals by leaping into my teammates' arms like Trevor Linden. It never occurred to me that all the players I watched on Hockey Night in Canada with my dad every Saturday were all male. In the naive mind of a 4 year old girl, I felt that someday I could be out there too.

But girls didn't play hockey at the time. At least that was the popular opinion. So figure skating it was. Trying to wrangle a rambunctious hockey-loving girl into a pink dress was no easy feat. My mother can vouch for that. Trying to get her to perform intricate jumps and spins was even harder. I hated it, I was terrible at it, and my heart wanted hockey. Only hockey. But girls didn't play hockey.

"The Americans had our flag on the floor in their dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it."

Yeah, those words changed my life. To come across this sweaty, teary, triumphant hockey player on TV who had just brought home Canada's first ever gold medal in women's hockey was a moment I'll never forget. Could this really be happening? A woman? Playing hockey? The figure skates were sold and the hockey gear bought. 15 years later, hockey has given me some of my greatest memories and learning opportunities. I am a female hockey player and this is my sport.

You can't be what you can't see. I saw Hayley Wickenheiser and, while I couldn't replicate her mastery as a player (I don't think her greatness will ever be replicated), her courage and her example propelled me to pursue a career in sports. And for so many young girls and women, Hayley is the living proof of what they want to be. They see her, they work hard every day to be her.

On the occasion of Hayley's retirement from hockey, I would like to convey to her, some sentiments.


You set out first to establish yourself on a team where you were a youngster, then to bring home a gold medal for Canada, then to pave new roads for the sport, then to inspire young girls to follow that road. You did all those things, and so much more Hayley. You did it all. 

But what you also did was change the life of a person who will never play for Canada but for whom hockey runs through her veins. Hockey has given me friends, it has kept me out of trouble (and sometimes gotten me into trouble!), it has taught me to be tough both physically and mentally, it has taught me to focus and to be calm, it has given me confidence and maturity, and it has molded me into who I am today. And there are so many others out there for whom you've had the same impact.

None of this would have happened without you Hayley. You made it cool to be a female hockey player. You gave us a reason to have "swagger." But you did all this without ever having an ounce of arrogance or ego. You had beer spilled on you and slurs uttered at you that were so much worse than the ones I had to endure. 

But today you stand above it all, and in rising above the critics, you have given an entire generation of female athletes a platform to do the same. The young girls playing sports today know they belong. They don't justify their presence and they don't apologize for it. It's because they are standing on your shoulders. We all are. Every day that I walk in to the office and work to better the lives of people through sport, I stand on your shoulders.

You have set the sport of women's hockey on a trajectory towards great success. I will be there for it and I know you will be too. I wish you all the best in your life after hockey. You deserve all the great things that will no doubt come to you. 

Thank you, Hayley, thank you so much.