Hayley Wickenheiser has accomplished just about everything she could possibly accomplish in the women’s game. Her resume includes seven World Championship gold medals, four Olympic golds, a CWHL championship, induction into the Order of Canada and she’s a surefire Hall of Famer. And while it appeared that her time in the game was set to come to a close when she announced the end of her on-ice career in January 2017, the 40-year-old is heading right back to the ice, where she’s set to use her considerable talent to develop the next generation in the men’s game.
On Thursday, as part of a string of front-office moves, the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Wickenheiser has been named the organization’s assistant director of player development, which will be her first full-time foray into the coaching realm. In the new post, Wickenheiser will work under newly promoted senior director of player development Scott Pellerin and recently retired NHL rearguard Stephane Robidas, who was elevated to Pellerin’s old post as director of player development.
In landing with the Maple Leafs, Wickenheiser steps into the highest-ranking front-office role of any woman involved at the NHL level. While other teams such as the Ottawa Senators (Shelley Kettles) and Colorado Avalanche (Tracy Tutton) have women working in on-ice development as skating coaches — add the Maple Leafs to that list as well, as longtime skating coach Barb Underhill works as Toronto’s skating development consultant — Wickenheiser is the only woman in an overarching development position.
And as remarkable and groundbreaking as Thursday’s announcement might be, Wickenheiser’s hiring isn’t exactly one that came out of left field. In June, Wickenheiser was invited to and participated in the Maple Leafs’ development camp as a guest coach, after which she said she was open to further opportunities with Toronto, adding that she would be love to stay involved with the game.
"The biggest reason I was intrigued about this role is that [Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas] was interested in me, not just to hire a woman but to hire someone who could do the job," Wickenheiser said, via NHL.com. "I feel pretty confident in my abilities to be in this role, and that I belong and can handle myself with anyone. For me, it's that I have a job to do. I have a role to take on to help the Leafs try to win and that's how I'm approaching it, no different than I did when I was a player.”
Among the reasons Dubas cited for being interested in Wickenheiser are her expertise and experiences being an elite player at every level she’s played. “I just thought the way she thinks about hockey and life could be a massive benefit to our player development program and our program in general,” Dubas said, via NHL.com. “She has a greater ability in that she was one of the great players to ever play the game. She can connect with our players on that level as well because that's unique experience that she can bring."
Of course, this isn’t altogether Wickenheiser’s first foray into the men’s game. Long recognized as one of the most talented women’s players ever, a claim she can back up as the top scorer in Olympic and World Championship history, Wickenheiser made the jump to the Finnish League’s third tier, Suomi-sarja, and later helped HC Salamat earn promotion to the country’s second division, Mestis, with a one-goal, five-point performance in the qualification round. All told, Wickenheiser played 33 games in Finland, and later went on to skate in 22 games in Sweden’s Div. I during the 2008-09 campaign.
The question going forward will be how high up the ranks Wickenheiser can move, be it with the Maple Leafs or another NHL organization. Could she move up through the player development ranks? Is a role in hockey operations possible? How about coaching? Or could Wickenheiser enter the team-building realm as either a GM or assistant GM? While there’s not many women who have risen the ranks in such a way, Wickenheiser wouldn’t be the first woman to accomplish the latter. As an expansion franchise, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim hired Angela Gorgone as the team’s scouting coordinator and she later rose to become the team’s assistant GM in 1996-97. She spent one season in the role before moving on to become the Nashville Predators’ director of hockey administration, a position she left in 1999.
In addition to Wickenheiser, Noelle Needham, who last played for the NCAA’s Minnesota State University - Mankato Mavericks in 2006-07 and has spent the past several years as one of the guiding forces behind Legend Hockey in Sioux Falls, S.D., has also been added to the organization as an amateur scout. Needham becomes one of the first women to step into a pure scouting role at the NHL level since the San Jose Sharks made Deborah Wright the NHL’s first female scout ahead of the 1992-93 season. Wright spent only one season with the Sharks.