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Hayley Wickenheiser one of first female characters in NHL video game

Hayley Wickenheiser, olympic gold medalist hockey player and one of the first two female to be featured in a sports video game, speaks with The Canadian Press before the release of EA Sports' NHL 13 game in Toronto on Tuesday, August 28, 2012.

Michelle Siu/THE CANADIAN PRESS

She's been a pioneer in the hockey world for years. Now, Hayley Wickenheiser is making video game history too.

The star of Canada's women's hockey team is one of the first two female athletes to be featured as a playable character in a professional sports league video game.

Players of EA Sports' NHL 13 will have the option of choosing either Wickenheiser or veteran American defenceman Angela Ruggiero as avatars.

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"Traditionally, video games have been seen as something for boys, and hockey's been seen as a game for boys," Wickenheiser said in an interview Tuesday. "And now it's not."

EA Sports started including female players in NHL 12, which featured generic female characters. But this is the first time recognizable, real-world female athletes are a part of the made-in-Canada game.

EA Sports included the female player in NHL 12 after a 14-year-old girl e-mailed the company saying she felt underrepresented as a hockey video game fan.

"This year we are very excited to continue our effort of creating a more representative experience for female hockey fans by adding two of the greatest female athletes to ever play the game in Wickenheiser and Ruggiero to 'NHL 13,"' EA senior producer David Littman said in a statement.

In addition to Wickenheiser and Ruggiero, former NHL stars Jari Kurri, Doug Gilmour and Dominik Hasek have also been added to the Legends roster for NHL 13.

Wickenheiser says having women represented as professional athletes is about "equality for women and doing the right thing."

"You know, what's great is that females are 50 per cent of the population that play video games nowadays, and 50 per cent of the population, or more than that, so I think it's a natural fit," she added. "I think women's sport has really grown."

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Forced to play on boys teams when she was young, Wickenheiser has done her part to foster that growth.

In 2003, she became the first woman to record a point in a men's professional hockey game with the Kirkkonummen Salamat of the Finnish second division. She also played for a men's team in the Swedish first division in 2008-09 and received the Order of Canada for her contributions to growth in women's hockey.

But the three-time Olympic champion says it wasn't easy being a girl playing with boys when she was growing up in Shaunavon, Sask.

"I remember walking into a rink used to be so much stress because they would know you're a girl," she recalled. "So I would just run to the bathroom and hide as quickly as I could."

She would try to stay out of sight until she could put her gear on and get out on the ice.

Wickenheiser, 34, says she didn't know that other girls played hockey until she was about 12, when she watched the women's world championships on TV and was inspired to go to the Olympics.

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"Now, I see young girls with a hockey stick and a hockey bag walking into rinks across Canada, and it's not a big deal," said Wickenheiser.

While the star forward may be featured in the NHL video game, Wickenheiser doesn't think it's a realistic goal to integrate female players into the league.

"I think the real goal for women in hockey should be to have a professional league, and there's no reason why they can't in time," said Wickenheiser, who helped lead the Calgary Dinos to the Canadian women's university title earlier this year. "It could be equally as entertaining as the NHL."

Since she's still active as an athlete, Wickenheiser doesn't necessarily see herself as the person who will get that idea off the ground, but she says she can see it coming together in the near future.

In the meantime, gamers will have the option to choose Wickenheiser or Ruggiero in NHL 13. The game, which is developed in Burnaby, B.C., will be released Sept. 11.

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