Fans of international hockey saw Hayley Wickenheiser with a red maple leaf on the front of her sweater for nearly a quarter of a century. Now, fans of the NHL will see her with a BLUE maple leaf after Kyle Dubas, the youngest general manager in the league, hired the future hall of famer to join Toronto’s player development program as an assistant director.
It is the most senior hiring of a woman by an NHL team to date, and suggests even greater possibilities for the future.
“I think the biggest reason I was intrigued about this role was that he [Dubas] was interested in me, not hiring a woman, but hiring someone who could do the job,” Wickehnheiser said of her new job last Thursday. “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.”
Wickenheiser will continue to live in Calgary and will work with Leafs prospects playing in the WHL. She’ll also travel to Toronto regularly to work with the AHL Marlies and the NHL Maple Leafs. She’ll work under two former NHL players, Scott Pellerin, who was promoted to senior director of player development, and Stephane Robidas, the new director.
Although he is only 31, Dubas is wiser than his years but also perhaps more open-minded because of that youth. “Research shows the more diverse your organization the better the decision making, the better your operation in general,” Dubas explained. “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.”
The addition of Wickenheiser also makes sense in another way. A native of Saskatchewan, like head coach Mike Babcock, she is on excellent terms with the coach, making her integration all the easier.
Dubas was not done with the hiring of Wickenheiser, though. He also appointed Noelle Needham as a regional scout for the midwest United States. Needham played high-school hockey at Shattuck St. Mary’s, where Sidney Crosby played for a year, and she also played at Minnesota State. After graduating she ran a business called Legend Hockey, in Sioux Falls, North Dakota, a development program that has proved highly successful. Needham also founded a hockey club in that city for teenagers.
Interestingly, Needham put in her application for the job like everyone else and earned the hire based solely on merit, not gender. “The candidates all completed reports,” Dubas explained. “I didn’t know who was who. She came highly recommended, and we moved ahead.”
The Leafs also have Barb Underhill on staff as a skating coach. Underhill was a world-class figure skater, winning the world championship in 1984 with pairs partner Paul Martini. Last week the team also added Dr. Meg Popovic as the Leafs’ director of athlete wellbeing and performance, making clear they are at the forefront of innovation and integrating women into what has been a men-only world since the sport went professional in the early 1900s.