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Canadian women's hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser poses with her jersey for the Finnish hockey league Team Salamat (Lightning) in 2003. Wickenheiser made pro hockey history on Saturday playing with a men's team in the Finnish second division.Reuters Photographer/Reuters

Excerpted from Over the Boards by Hayley Wickenheiser. Copyright © 2021 Hayley Wickenheiser. Published by Viking Canada/Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

When I first arrived in Finland, my discomfort was constant and intense. I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t speak the language. I felt isolated and lonely as hell, like an outsider who didn’t belong. It took a few months to get comfortable and get to know people, many of whom remain amazing friends to this day.

My team ended up being a saving grace. That first season, one of our assistant coaches would pop into my dressing room before games: “Okay, Hayley, number 11 and number 67, they’re going to try to take you out today.” This allowed me to prepare for it. I was mentally aware of what was coming. I would look at the bench next door and keep my eyes on the players in question. When I was on a shift with one of them, I always knew where they were on the ice.

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I wore a visor instead of the full cage we wear in the women’s game. I never thought I would miss my cage until I took an Easton Synergy stick across the bridge of my nose in one of my first games with Salamat. The crack was so loud even the fans heard it. Blood gushed from my nose like it was a fountain. When I got to the bench, the guys were horrified. I grabbed the door with two hands and slammed it as hard as I could. I had been run at during every game and every practice in front of the media for weeks on end leading up to that moment. It just plain sucked. I was so incredibly uncomfortable with everything I had chosen for that season, and this was a breaking point, literally.

I grabbed my nose and shifted it back into place. I decided to try out my Finnish. “Pikku! " I shouted, and sat down. I thought I’d said “Fuck.”

One of my teammates, Immo – the team’s tough guy who became a close friend – handed me a towel, and I put it over my face. “Hayley, it’s vittu,” he said. We both laughed – turns out the “swear word” I yelled actually means “small child.” Then I buried my tears of frustration in the towel. Dealing with all the other crap I was dealing with hurt more than the broken nose. But I didn’t want the guys or the media to see me cry.

For a week I had a pair of black eyes, and I still have a bump on the bridge of my nose – my souvenir from Finland. A couple nights later I got my first goal, a backhand, in front of a sellout crowd of 1,200 at our home rink. I forgot all about my sore nose. I had reached one of my goals – the pursuit of which had put me so far out of my comfort zone in the first place – I was improving my game.

When we played our rival, the Savonlinnan Pallokerho, or SaPKo, their head coach told reporters that he’d brought up a pair of goons to knock the daylights out of me. That, I was okay with. What infuriated me was where SaPKo had me change before the game. Instead of opening up a dressing room for me, they stuck me with their team’s cheerleaders. Their not-so-subtle dig lit a fire in me. We beat Savonlinnan that night and I was named player of the game in front of 9,000 fans. My reward was … a paper bag full of raw fish. Strangely, SaPKo’s player of the game was given a trophy. My linemates were pissed. They took the fish and threw it against the rink wall. Then they bought a bunch of beer and we spent the four-hour ride back to Kirkkonummi drinking on the bus, my teammates cheering me up.

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Kirkkonummi Salamat's female Canadian player celebrates an assist on a goal scored by Matti Tevanen, right, on Jan. 11, 2003 in Kirkkonummi, Finland.Reuters Photographer/Reuters

Always being a seeker can put you in some really uncomfortable positions. But it’s the best way to grow – and there will be bright moments, too. Patches of sunlight that break through the overwhelming feelings of What did I just get myself into? – like my first goal for Salamat, or when my teammates had my back against SaPKo. Those moments will keep you going through the rough patches. There was another bright spot in that long year: Matilda Nilsson, the five-year-old daughter of Camilla and Toni Nilsson, the couple who ran the rink in Kirkkonummi. Matilda, who always wore a bright blue Salamat tuque atop her long, white-blond hair, was a little rink rat. Her parents could never get her off the ice.

Matti, our coach, didn’t seem to mind. He ran practice from the bench, never once lacing up to skate with us. When he blew the whistle, we’d skate to the boards where he’d explain the next drill. That was also Matilda’s cue. At the sound of Matti’s whistle, she’d hop onto the ice and race for the net, practising her shot on the suddenly empty net. When Matti whistled to signal the start of the next drill, Matilda would hustle off the ice and sit beside him, watching us skate.

Matilda came to every home game – she was practically our mascot. When things went badly, I would hear a shy little knock on my dressing room door. I’d quickly compose myself and let her in. She’d sit beside me. She didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak any Finnish. But that didn’t matter. We spoke the language of hockey. She’d smile up at me, and I’d feel my pain melt away. She was this brilliant, dazzling light in a very dark winter.

I’ve stayed close to the Nilsson family in the years since I left Finland. They’ve visited Noah and me in Calgary, and I’ve been back to Finland to visit them. In 2020, shortly after Matilda turned 23, she was named to the Finnish national women’s hockey team. The little girl who sat with me in some of my loneliest moments all those years ago is now living out her own hockey dreams. I couldn’t be happier for her.

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