Prior to Thursday’s announcement of Canada’s flag-bearer at the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics, there was speculation the honor would go to the planet’s best hockey player, Sidney Crosby. That speculation turned out to be wrong and we should all be happy it was – not because we should want to slight the Penguins superstar, but because it went to the person perfect for the job: women’s hockey icon Hayley Wickenheiser.
In heart, in spirit and in practice, she represents everything that’s right about Canada, hockey and amateur athletics.
It isn’t just Wickenheiser’s unsurpassed success in the women’s game that has endeared her so to people from one end of the country to the other. It isn’t simply the passion she’s showed to be the best – the most famous example being her 2002 Salt Lake Games speech in which she said, “The Americans had our flag on the floor of their dressing room. Now I want to know if they want us to sign it” – nor is it the astonishing fact Sochi will be her fifth Olympics (sixth if you include her participation on Canada’s national softball team at the 2000 Sydney Summer Games) that makes her the proper choice.
No, the real reason the 35-year-old is the ideal selection is the manner in which she conducts herself all year, every year, regardless of whether or not there’s a spotlight on her. Although fewer people follow the development of female hockey players in non-Olympic years, she works just as hard on her own skills and also has fought tirelessly to establish and build a viable professional women’s league. If that weren’t enough, she puts it upon herself to improve communities other than the hockey world she already has improved so much. Go to her website and you’ll see a fully-engaged citizen, motivational speaker, mom and mentor. Wickenheiser has worked for, among other groups, Right To Play (which sent her to faraway places such as Ghana and Rwanda on goodwill missions) and Stepping Out, a program committed to improving the lives of people with autism.
She also helps at home, working through social media and with corporate sponsors to provide hockey equipment for families in need:
Know a kid who wants to play hockey but can’t afford the equipment? Send story to email@example.com by Jan 15. We’ll outfit 3! #Sochi2014
— Hayley Wickenheiser (@wick_22) January 9, 2014
Though many athletes have trouble adjusting to life after their competing days are over, nobody ever needs to worry about Wickenheiser. No matter what happens in Sochi, she is set to continue making an impact afterward. Here’s an example of what she’ll be doing in support of True Patriot Love, an organization that assists Canadian military families:
— Hayley Wickenheiser (@wick_22) January 11, 2014
A writer could spend a full day and then some investigating and cataloguing all of Wickenheiser’s endeavors and never find a single soul with a discouraging word to say about her. She is an ambassador not just for women’s hockey, not just for hockey, not just for sport and not just for Canada. She’s an ambassador for selflessness, for empathy, for hard work, for decency. She is what you’d want your daughter or son to be, on and off the ice.
Yes, Wickenheiser has amassed a mountain of trophies and gold medals in her playing career – including three Olympic gold medals, seven IIHF world championship gold medals, and 10 golds at the annual Four Nations Cup tournament – and the flag-bearer honor in Sochi is a wonderful way to tie a bow on those achievements before she retires and eventually is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. But those are only a few things she’ll be remembered for.
Olympic legends may be burnished in the two weeks of any particular Games, but their essence is formed in the three years and 50 weeks leading up to them.
In that respect, there’s never been a better embodiment of a year-round Olympic ideal than Hayley Wickenheiser. She’ll carry the flag, and the flag should be grateful for it.