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Wickenheiser shatters the NHL’s glass ceiling, takes front-office role with the Maple Leafs

Hayley Wickenheiser, the most famous women’s hockey player in history, has been hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as a skills coach, a position that could someday lead to a head-coaching job.

The NHL will not likely be the first of the big four North American professional sports organizations to hire a woman as a head coach – the NBA is already the furthest along on that road since Becky Hammon, the top assistant on the San Antonio Spurs' staff, interviewed for the head coach’s job with the Milwaukee Bucks last May.

But the league took a step in that direction Thursday when Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas hired not just one woman but two. Wickenheiser is the Leafs’ new assistant director of player development, essentially a skills coach for the team’s prospects. Also hired was Noelle Needham as an amateur scout for the Midwestern United States.

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The hires are not ground-breaking, as NHL teams have been hiring women for decades as skating coaches, scouts and in analytics roles.

The importance here is that Wickenheiser, 40, is one of the first women hired as a skills and strategy coach. This puts her on the track to a head coach’s job if that turns out to be her ambition.

Wickenheiser, of course, is well aware of the importance of her hiring as a beacon for other women who aspire to an NHL career, but her priority is to do the job well.

“I think the biggest reason I was intrigued about this role was [Dubas] was interested in me, not hiring a woman, but hiring someone who could do the job,” she said. “I feel pretty confident in my abilities to be in this role, and that I belong and can handle myself with anyone. It’s not just a job to do, but I have a role to take on to help the Leafs try to win.”

Indeed, the news release issued by the Leafs handled the announcement in the same fashion as if Wickenheiser were a man with a lower profile. Instead of trumpeting Wickenheiser’s hiring, the release began with the promotions of Scott Pellerin to senior director of player development and Stéphane Robidas as director of player development, the two people just above her on the organizational chart. The Wickenheiser and Needham news was next.

The job was a result of Wickenheiser’s participation in the Leafs’ development camp earlier in the summer. While Wickenheiser and Leafs head coach Mike Babcock are good friends, she actually came to Dubas’s attention as a potential hire through Darryl Belfry, a Leafs player-development consultant who worked with her for eight years on her own game.

From her base in Calgary, Wickenheiser will work with players drafted by the Leafs who play in junior hockey’s WHL. She will also travel to Toronto “three or four times a month” to work with players on both the Toronto Marlies farm team and the NHL squad.

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When it comes to qualifications, Wickenheiser’s are second to none. She was generally acknowledged as the best in the women’s game during her 23-year playing career. She was the leader of the Canadian national women’s team for seven world titles and four Olympic gold medals.

The biggest challenge for Wickenheiser in the new job may simply be time management. She began an accelerated medical-school program at the University of Calgary last month and agreed to the job when Dubas was willing to accommodate both endeavours.

“When I was a player, I was a full-time student doing a master’s degree, raising a son and managing business stuff on the side, so I’m very used to multitasking,” Wickenheiser said. “I think on the outside looking in, people think that’s a daunting thing but in my daily life I’m pretty used to managing a lot.”

At this point, Wickenheiser doesn’t know if medicine or hockey will wind up as her full-time vocation.

“I think one will complement the other and I don’t have to make that decision at this point,” she said. “So I can finish my degree with medicine and use that in hockey at some point. I think it can only help my experiences in hockey.”

While there is no shortage of people inside the NHL and out who believe women’s hockey is “different” from the men’s game and disqualifies women from participating, this is not to say all NHL general managers are troglodytes. The problem is there are only 31 such jobs, which means keeping one occupies a significant portion of a GM’s thinking.

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This does not lend itself to taking chances, which means few NHL executives will take risks in their hires. They like to stick with the people they know, which generally means other white males.

So it makes sense the Wickenheiser and Needham hirings were made by Dubas. At 31 years of age, he is not an entrenched member of the old boys club, nor is he likely to become one. The reason Leafs president Brendan Shanahan hired Dubas is he was impressed by his unconventional thinking, which goes beyond even analytics – considered the height of non-conformity by a lot of the old guard.

“Research shows the more diverse your organization the better the decision-making, the better your operation in general,” Dubas said. “If you just hire white males, and I say that as a white male, you’re probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization can go and how it evolves and develops. We’re looking for the best candidates. We’re not pushing anybody aside.”

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