Thanks to insurance issues, the Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team didn’t skate during this week’s orientation camp, not with $1.5-billion (U.S.) worth of professional contracts at stake.
But there were no such financial issues for the women’s team, and it was business as usual as they prepared for a trip to Russia and a test event being held at the host site of the 2014 Sochi Games.
“It was $1.2-million to insure [the NHL pros],” veteran forward Hayley Wickenheiser said with a laugh, “and about [$50,000] to insure us.”
The women’s team has been centralized in Calgary again. They will train in Sochi for about a week, and then play two exhibition games against the improving Russian women’s team.
“I tell the girls we’re doing Rocky in Russia – and we’re bringing the movies over,” Wickenheiser said. “We have a young group that hasn’t done a lot of international travel, so adjusting to time change and expecting to perform when you’re tired and jet-lagged, too, it’ll be a good test.
“The competition is important, but it’s secondary to figuring out what the venues are like and where you are in proximity to everything else and what kind of food you need to eat.
“For me, the only thing that matters is the rink. I could sleep in a cardboard box. The food and all that stuff will be fine. Just what the venue is like, what it feels like, the impression people have towards.”
Now 34, Wickenheiser remains the primary public face of Canadian women’s hockey – and that is both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, she has been a tireless ambassador for the sport, promoting it at every level, including an appearance on behalf of Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. this week, which has signed on as the title sponsor for Wickenheiser’s annual hockey festival.
On the other hand, for the visibility of the game to improve, there needs to be a far-greater awareness of players beyond just her.
Canada has some emerging young stars such as Marie-Philip Poulin and Meghan Agosta-Marciano. Tessa Bonhomme received a fair amount of attention by participating in Battle of the Blades; and among the veterans, Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette unflinchingly soldier on.
But in the same way that for a percentage of Americans, Wayne Gretzky remains the only name they can associate with the sport, it is sometimes that way with Wickenheiser and women’s hockey. She made the national team at 15; won four Olympic medals; and also played on Canada’s women’s softball team at the 2000 Summer Games in Australia. Recently, Sports Illustrated ranked her No. 20 on the list of top-25 toughest athletes in the world.
“For sure, professional sport is always built on stars,” Wickenheiser said. “People want human stories and they want athletes they can connect to and follow and expect great performances from. So, I think one of the things about women’s hockey is it’s not followed enough for people to be educated on what really goes on day in and day out in the game internationally.
“It’s always going to be a challenge to showcase the game and the players in the game … because the world really watches women’s hockey every four years. That’s the reality of it.”
Canada and the United States remain the dominant teams, but both have a vested interested in seeing the sport improve around the world so the International Olympic Committee doesn’t threaten to throw them out of the Games, as it did after the 2010 Olympics.
According to Wickenheiser, the greatest strides may have been made in Russia, where former NHLer Alexei Yashin is now in charge of the program.
“It is getting better,” Wickenheiser said. “They have dramatically improved their game. For the first time ever, they actually have a spark of hope. … I think they’re going to be a contender to knock somebody off, like Sweden and Finland will be.”
Still, it would require a major upset for the Canadians and Americans not to be playing for the gold medal come February.
Ultimately, it will be the team that adapts best to the conditions in Russia that will end up on top, which is why Wickenheiser believes this trip can be so valuable.
“One of the fatal mistakes is if you go in and want things be exactly a certain way,” she said. “You have to be open to anything. You’ve got to roll with it. You’ve got to be flexible. I’m sure in Russia anything is possibly going to happen.”