Canadian legend helps develop CIS women’s hockey, coach says

When looking at this season’s leading scorers in women’s university hockey, it may be a surprise to come across the name of arguably the greatest female hockey player of all-time.

She is a four-time Olympic medalist, three of those coming from gold medal victories. She has also captured 11 medals playing in the World Women’s Hockey Championships.

Sports Illustrated named her one of the “toughest” athletes in the world in 2006. She was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2011, and has even played in a men’s professional hockey league in Finland.

Hayley Wickenheiser has put together a long list of accomplishments. Now, at the age of 34, she’s adding domination in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) league to her resume.

At the age of 34, Wickenheiser says she still has a huge love for hockey and tries to get better as a player every game.

Photo by Landon Wesley

As a member of the University of Calgary Dinos, Wickenheiser has put up 43 points in 22 games played. This places her third overall in the league, having racked up 16 goals and 27 assists.

She also has a plus 46 rating to lead all CIS women’s hockey players. This shows that she plays great defensively as well, and doesn’t just put up points.

But this begs the question: should a player with so much hockey experience and career success be playing in a university league?

Why she belongs

“Those who say I should be in a different league show more about the lack of respect people have for CIS,” says Wickenheiser, who has been playing in the league for three years. “Me playing here should say to people that I have enough respect to play in this league and it’s a good level of competition.”

Wickenheiser says she doesn’t see putting points up on the board as taking opportunities away from her teammates. She says that for the Dinos to be successful, she has to contribute offensively.

Photo by Landon Wesley

Current CIS eligibility rules allow a student to play a school sport for five years — there is no age limit.

Wickenheiser adds: “The challenge for me in this league is to figure out how to make my teammates better and try to make the team successful. It’s the hardest hockey I have ever played.”

Wickenheiser and her Dinos teammates placed second overall in the CIS league, finishing the season with a 23-4-1 record.

Dinos head coach Danielle Goyette says having a player like Wickenheiser helps to develop CIS women’s hockey — and attracts more high-end players to the league.

“Every time you are at the top of your sport, your job is to develop and make those players and teams around you better,” says Goyette, a former Olympic teammate of Wickenheiser’s.

Stephanie Zvonkovic, a 19-year-old current teammate of Wickenheiser’s, says she sees no harm in the hockey star playing at the university level.

“She is an amazing teammate and we obviously learn a lot from her,” Zvonkovic says. “She pushes us to be better, and we push back.”

Even Christina Hodgson of the Mount Royal University Cougars says she believes all is fair for the veteran hockey player.

“Good for her for staying competitive for so long,” Hodgson says. “Ultimately, she is the face of women’s hockey, and most girls are excited to get the chance to compete against her.”

Hodgson asks why you wouldn’t want an Olympian playing for your organization. “Sure it gives them an advantage, but everyone in the league knows U of C is beatable even when Wick is on the ice,” she says. “We just have to compete harder against a player like her.”

Like everyone else

“The challenge for me in this league is to figure out how to make my teammates better and try to make the team successful. It’s the hardest hockey I have ever played,” Wickenheiser says.

Photo by Landon Wesley

Wickenheiser is currently a kinesiology student at the U of C, and she says that she doesn’t see her age or experience as an issue when it comes to playing hockey while being a student.

“My life is no different than any other student athlete,” she says. “I have to take courses and handle the load just like everyone else.”

Teammate Zvonkovic says she agrees that Wickenheiser is just like every other student athlete, and adds that it’s not like she has the luxury of just playing hockey.

“She needs somewhere to play,” Zvonkovic says. “Anyone who is going to school and can play for a CIS team should — no matter what age.”

Role model

Coach Goyette says that Wickenheiser strives to be the best she can be every time she steps on the ice. She stresses that she works just as hard off the ice to be successful at everything else that she does.

For Goyette, Wickenheiser is a role model for a group of young, up-and-coming hockey players.

“She succeeds not just at hockey, but at school as well,” Goyette says. “She has a 4.0 GPA. You can be good at hockey, but you need to put effort into everything else.”

And it’s not like Wickenheiser is the only one teaching on the ice. She says that her teammates have had a huge impact on her as well.

“They help me out a lot with stuff,” she says. “I try to coach them a little bit and they help me out. Together it is a nice mix, and it reciprocates on the ice.”

The next step for the Dinos star and her teammates will be defending last year’s championship in the 2012-2013 playoffs, beginning Feb. 22.

lwesley@cjournal.ca