It doesn’t matter what side of the face-off spot, border or world you’re on, “athletes are athletes and people are people,” says four-time Olympic gold medallist and seven-time IIHF world champion Hayley Wickenheiser, who continues to spread her love of hockey – and ultimately the power of sport – far and wide following her illustrious career as a player.
“That’s just the general premise that I want to operate from,” Wickenheiser told IIHF.com shortly after returning from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, a country that remains mysterious and arguably intimidating to most of her compatriots, and where she didn’t hesitate to step onto the ice alongside the nation’s top players and into meetings with the country’s sports ministry representatives. Click here to check out her photo gallery from the trip.
It was a last-minute trip tacked on to a whirlwind two-month Asian adventure that included her duties as a member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) athletes commission in the Republic of Korea, the southern part of the divided peninsula, and a long-planned trip to India, where she helped donate much-needed equipment to a place not commonly thought of as a hockey hotbed, worked alongside players of all ages on outdoor rinks nestled high up in the Himalayas, watched the gold medal women’s game alongside Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – and empowered girls and women to claim their confidence in a traditionally male-dominated society.
“It’s a lot of sport diplomacy, really, (that) I’ve been doing, and not by design,” Wickenheiser said by phone from her home in Calgary, Alberta, the western Canadian city that also serves as Hockey Canada headquarters. “It just sort of happened that way.”
“When you walk through the athletes’ village and you see Jews and Arabs, or you see people from conflict countries that are sitting near each other and talking,” she recalled, “you see exactly what sport can do” to help people recognize their similarities and bring them together despite their differences.
“You build bridges not walls with people,” she said of what drives much of her work both abroad and at home, including initiatives such as the Wickenheiser International Women’s Hockey Festival (WickFest), which in 2018/19 heads into its ninth season.
“And the only way to do that is if you communicate and you expose people to things that they’re not really used to being exposed to.”
This inspiring sentiment, along with the unification of the Korean national women’s team, sparked her decision to travel north of the border following the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang.
Wickenheiser had, in fact, initially turned down an invitation to join the Howe International Friendship League in Pyongyang after wrapping up with the IOC down south, an offer that had come up about six months prior to puck drop on the Olympics, but when the two countries agreed in mid-January to join forces for the sake of sport, she realized this was an opportunity she simply couldn’t pass up.
“Initially, I was critical because I didn’t feel it was fair to put the women in that position – the South Korean women – and not do the same for the men’s team,” Wickenheiser said.
“But in saying that, and sometimes you’ve got to see things from a bigger picture, I do think at the end of the day it was positive in the sense that it drew a lot of attention to the women’s game,” she said. “I think that it brought some goodwill in the countries, and we’re seeing that right now.”
So Wickenheiser reconnected with the Friendship League branch based out of Vancouver which helped her quickly secure a visa so that she could help the group in reaching its goals of, as described on its website, “promoting goodwill and building friendship between cultures around the world through the power of sport.”
“I thought it would be good timing and it would be relevant, given who I (am) and women’s hockey being the centre of attention at the Olympic Games,” Wickenheiser said of why it became so important for her to spread the sport most familiar to her on unfamiliar ground.
Most importantly, she said, “I just didn’t want the women to be forgotten” after the political hype surrounding them over the course of the Olympics.
Unsurprisingly, the players in the north of Korea have the exact same dreams as their neighbours in the south and Canadian counterparts such as Wickenheiser, who grew up in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, playing the game she loved.
“When I was in North Korea, and I asked all the players what you would love to have happen in their hockey career, their answers were to play in the Olympic Games, either as one country or as the North Koreans.”
No matter where they come from, all hockey players just want to play, which is also the case in India. Wickenheiser decided to visit the South Asian country after viewing a video on YouTube about the challenges faced by India’s first national women’s team and their love for the game that echoes hers. She and former Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference led a small group – accompanied by 75 bags of donated hockey gear – to the beautiful Ladakh region, where they “taught the game on these outdoor rinks in the middle of paradise to anyone who wanted to listen.
“It was really quite phenomenal,” Wickenheiser said of lacing up her skates on frozen lakes at an elevation of 12,000 feet (3,650 metres), surrounded by mountains and under spectacular sunny blue skies.
“There’s just a real peaceful feeling playing there, a real pureness of the game that really helped me fall in love with hockey... again,” she described. “You’ve played for so many years and trying to win medals and everything is about performance, but here it was just about playing and no judgment.
So it was just really pure and an incredible place to play hockey.”
In addition to taking to the ice alongside the Indian women, Wickenheiser’s Canadian crew “worked with not only the girls – we worked with kids – boys, girls – military, police, the men as well. We worked with about 700 players over 12 days.”
One of the most rewarding moments for her was when her Canadian group joined forces with several of India’s top female players to face off against some of the country’s military units that have hockey teams – and won.
“Normally, women would never have the chance to go on the ice and play against these men and with us, they did. And not only that, we spanked them; kicked their butts all over the ice, and the girls were all a part of that.
And it kind of garnered more respect for them, I think, which was a really cool thing to witness; to watch the interaction between the military and the girls after the game and just the way in which they were embraced a little bit more.”
Their outdoor rinks may be flooded by hand through the night, with makeshift water pumps and brooms serving as Zamboni replacements, but the women who play on them “are kind of rock stars in the region now,” Wickenheiser said proudly.
That’s why she hopes to help create more sustainable hockey in the region, for both females and males, which would include funding more outdoor ice rinks in the country’s remote villages.
Wickenheiser estimates it will cost about $1,000 to maintain one rink per year, which would last for two or three months of the season and help get more kids on the ice. She also wants to raise funds to help build some covered rinks in the region, so that India’s players can have up to four months of the season on skates.
“In the wintertime, kids don’t go to school and so they have a lot of downtime; a lot of problems like First Nations here (in Canada), and so we really want to try to help,” she said of her hopes to make hockey a positive teaching tool for struggling Indian communities.
“Hockey is not just about hockey, but it’s a metaphor for life and growth, and all of those things.”
To accomplish this mission, and to bring the country’s top female players to next season’s WickFest, she’s busy holding fundraisers including the first-ever WickFest Gala, which took place April 20 at Crown Palace in Surrey, British Columbia, a Canadian city with a strong Indian population. Please visit www.india2yyc.com for more information on how you can help.
And after her recent experiences in Koreas, Wickenheiser hopes to return the favour by hosting the top female players from both of those countries at this year’s WickFest as well. “That was one of the reasons for going, is to bring a team here, because I believe in dialogue.”
Hockey, she believes, “is a language in itself.”
“You don’t have to speak a language when you get on the ice and you play against anyone from anywhere,” Wickenheiser said. “You’re talking by your body language; by what’s happening in the game; by the ebbs and flows and emotions of the game.”
Wickenheiser is hoping others recognize that hockey can help continue positive conversations on the Korean peninsula – and will step up to help her in efforts to get the female players to Canada.
“It’s the ultimate team sport,” she said of how hockey can unite, a fact that became clear as ice during PyeongChang 2018.
“There are just so many lessons that translate through hockey. It gives people confidence. It empowers them. It makes them feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves. It’s like the essence of what humanity is,” she explained as passionately as ever.
“To get a group here and to see that in North America, we’re not evil doers, and also over there, they’re not evil,” she explained, “People are people.”
“It’s amazing what sport can do.”