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An open letter to Hayley Wickenheiser

Thoughts on Hayley Wickenheiser’s retirement, and how she impacted the game of hockey.

Dumais Photo

Dear Hayley,

You don’t know me. Well, we met once at an autograph signing. I mentioned that you were my childhood hero, you said I made you feel old, I mentally panicked ... it wasn’t my finest social interaction, but it’s not every day you meet someone you grew up idolizing.

Anyways, after your retirement announcement on Friday night, I wanted to let you know just how much of an impact you had on my life, and the lives of countless young female hockey players around the world.

I started playing hockey at the age of five, in the early ‘90s. In my first few years, I was the only girl playing in the entire league. As a result, I became pretty used to playing hockey with boys, much like I was used to watching men play in the NHL. It was, as I believed, the way the world worked.

Before the 1998 Nagano Olympics, I didn’t even know that women could play hockey as adults. If you asked eight-year-old Michaela Schreiter what she was going to do with her life, she would have un-ironically told you that she was going to play in the NHL (and then looked you square in the eyes as you told her how cute that was). I thought my only option in hockey was NHL or bust. Then my dad sat me down in front of the TV to watch Team Canada in the Nagano Winter Games, and my whole world changed. That’s where I first saw you play.

I walked away from those Olympics with a new perspective on the game of hockey. Now, eight-year-old Michaela thought she was going to play on Team Canada; still a pretty high goal, but much more realistic. You and your teammates showed me, and so many other young female hockey players, that we had options when we grew up. That being the first female NHLer didn’t have to be our dream, and that we could aspire to play hockey in our own leagues.

From that day on, I admired you so much. For being so great at what you did that people had to notice you. For giving me a goal that I felt I could actually accomplish. And for showing the world that playing like a girl was a good thing.

You gave me someone to look up to, a realistic role model who I could actually see myself becoming. You represented not just a great hockey player, but a turning point in how young girls envisioned their hockey future. To this day, I get just as excited to watch you on TV as I did when I was eight. That’s something no amount of gold medals can compare to (but four will do just fine).

As a kid, I would run to school in the morning, talking about the amazing game between Team Canada and Team USA the night before. Most of the other kids looked at me as if I had two heads. Women’s hockey just wasn’t on their radar. Fast forward to three years ago in Sochi, and everyone in my office was jumping for joy when you and Team Canada came back from a 2-0 deficit to win gold in overtime. It was the game that everyone was talking about; and the fact that it was a women’s hockey game means more to me than most people will ever understand. Women’s hockey was officially on the map, and I was no longer alone.

For the most part, I had it pretty easy playing hockey as a young girl. Sure, I started off as the only girl in my league, but by the time I reached high school, there was an entire girl’s hockey league in my town. Were it not for the support from my family and community around women’s hockey, I honestly don’t think I would still be playing today. And I have you to thank for that. That growth didn’t happen overnight, but it happened because of the interest in the game that you sparked.

I may not have reached my goal of playing for Team Canada, but my entire career in sports is all down to a passion that was realized when I was eight years old, watching you play for the first time. I found a new dream, one I didn’t even know was possible for me as a child. And that is because of your impact on the game of hockey.

To think of how far the women’s game has come since then still gives me chills. Now, young girls can dream of playing for the Calgary Inferno or New York Riveters, rather than just their national team. And in every step forward that women’s hockey has taken, you’ve been right there at the forefront.

I’m just one of many whose life was changed because of you and your teammates. Countless young girls grew up watching you play, hoping to one day represent their country on the world stage as you did. Many of them are doing so now, and inspiring another generation of girls to do the same.

Your career as a player may be over, but your impact on the game will live forever.

From myself and so many other fans and players — thank you, Hayley.

Sincerely,

Michaela Schreiter

Meeting Hayley Wickenheiser in 2010.