When you hear the name Hayley Wickenheiser, there’s a good chance you picture her skating on a rink with a gold medal hanging around her neck and a Canadian flag flying behind her. The former professional hockey player attended the Olympic Games six times (including the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000 as a member of Canada’s softball team), bringing home four golds and one silver. Not to mention winning seven IIHF Women’s World Championships, being the first woman to score a goal in a men’s professional hockey league and being named to the Order of Canada for her contributions to women’s hockey. But since hanging up her skates in 2017, Wickenheiser has picked up a stethoscope: The Saskatchewan native is currently in her third year of medical school at the University of Calgary, a workload she balances with her position as assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
enRoute You were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last fall. How did it feel to be recognized only two years after retiring?
Hayley Wickenheiser It was a surreal experience. It didn’t really hit me until I was there, looking out and seeing the greats of the game – people like Mario Lemieux and Frank Mahovlich. That’s when it hit home that I’m part of a small company of people who are the best of the best. It was a big honour; to be the seventh woman inducted is pretty cool as well.
ER What’s a typical day like for you, balancing your role with the Leafs and your medical school schedule?
HW I head to the rink in the morning – we could be at one of three – and I might be working with the Marlies or the Leafs, depending on the day. I meet with the development staff and coaching staff, and we make a plan for what to work on with the players, then go on the ice and execute it. Afterward, I head to the hospital for my shift in emergency – I’m in Toronto for six months completing some electives. So typically, it’s hockey by day and medicine by night.
ER What drove you to go into medicine after your hockey career?
HW I always wanted to go into medicine. When I was nine, our neighbour’s daughter got run over by the grocery delivery truck in our little town, and she was badly injured. I remember going to the hospital to visit her and seeing the doctors and nurses and how the environment was, and just really gravitating toward it; I like helping people. Until I was about 12, I thought I would go to Harvard Medical School. But then the hockey offers came around. My parents are teachers, and education has always been important, so I knew I would go back and finish my degree. I eventually finished my bachelor’s, my master’s and now here I am.
ER Are there any similarities between competitive hockey and being in an emergency room?
HW They are very similar, actually. They’re both full of pressure. You have to work in a team, and you have to make decisions quickly. You never know what is going to come through the door at the hospital and you never know what’s going to happen on the ice. Everybody has an ego that has to be managed. You have to stay calm and you have to be well trained. So, I find they are the same minus the physical differences: hockey is more physically demanding on the body, but with the long hours, there’s a lot of stress in medicine.
ER How does your medical experience help you in hockey?
HW Since I’m older starting out in medicine, I’m much calmer in situations than I may have been in my twenties. And medicine puts things in perspective: you see people having the worst day of their life when they come into the ER, so when you go to a hockey practice, it seems trivial that somebody’s upset because their new skates don’t feel good on their feet. At the same time, everybody’s problems are relative. We see major tragedies in medicine, but they don’t diminish the pressure and stresses that pro athletes go through every day. I’ve learned to have empathy and to not make things bigger than they are.