After the announcement of Hayley Wickenheiser’s hiring as an assistant director of player development last Friday, a number of posts on social media over the weekend derided those who thought the hiring of the greatest women’s hockey player in history was a move motivated by public relations that was borne out of token gender diversity and those who questioned whether a woman, even one of Wickenheiser’s pedigree, could excel in an industry that is dominated by males.
The first thing I thought was that it would actually be impossible for anyone to think that way in this day and age and I couldn’t see where anyone was critical of the move. But if you dig hard enough, you find there are actually people out there who had a problem with the move. To them the message is simple. Go back to your cave and don’t let the rock you use for a door hit you on the backside.
Hayley Wickenheiser is an excellent hire for the Maple Leafs, just as she would have been for any other team progressive enough to do it. Jay Feaster was a lawyer by trade who was hired by two teams as a GM and he doesn’t even know how to skate. He has never played a competitive hockey game in his life. Yet he had the wherewithal and work ethic to build a team that won a Stanley Cup. There is no reason to believe Wickenheiser does not have the skill set to excel in the position she has taken, which will entail her travelling to Toronto from time to time to do skill work with players on both the Maple Leafs and the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League.
The fact that Wickenheiser will work the parallel paths of the NHL and completing medical school means we really have no idea where all this is going, but it certainly looks as though Wickenheiser will continue to be the trailblazer she has been for years and will have an opportunity to either pursue a career either in coaching or hockey operations if that’s what she wants to do with her career.
What we also have no idea about is how good or bad Wickenheiser will be at this. She might be brilliant, but she might be terrible. Nobody knows. Rocket Richard learned very quickly, one game with the Quebec Nordiques of the World Hockey Association to be exact, that he wasn’t cut out to be a coach because he could not understand how everyone could not do things as well as he did. Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player of all-time, but his teams finished over .500 just once and missed the playoffs all four seasons he was behind the bench. Hall of Famer Milt Schmidt was GM of one of the worst teams in NHL history. Phil Esposito, Joe Nieuwendyk and Brett Hull are all Hockey Hall of Fame players, but had GM tenures that left a whole lot to be desired. Whether you’re a man or a woman, experience in the game is not a guarantee of success.
The reality is that Wickenheiser’s success, or lack of it, at the NHL will have nothing to do with her gender. What will determine whether or not Wickenheiser can cut it as a member of a front office of the best league in the world will be how hard she is willing to work, what kind of sacrifices she’s prepared to make to meet her goals, how she works with other people and builds consensus and how much direction she’s prepared to take from people who have years of experience in the game. Will she be willing to drive through a blizzard to scout a junior game in Moose Jaw or take three connecting flights to check out an obscure prospect in Siberia? There’s an old saying in the NHL that suggests you haven’t made it as a hockey executive until you’ve made a million dollar mistake. (That adage should really be updated to reflect inflation.) How will she react to doing that? Is she prepared to scout American League games?
Those are the same questions anyone has to ask before they embark on a career in this game. It is not for the faint of heart, nor is it for anyone who has a thin skin or an unwillingness to work very, very hard. There’s nothing to suggest Wickenheiser is any of those things. And lest anyone thinks Wickenheiser might not truly understand the culture of hockey, she could always politely remind them that she played the gold medal game of the Olympics in Sochi at the age of 36 with a broken foot and was the best player on the ice.
Not that any of that will guarantee her success as either a coach or a member of hockey operations. And that’s the point here. Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas was right when he said that casting a net beyond white males leaves an awful lot of potential talent that could help you on the sidelines. Hockey is changing to be sure, but one thing will always remain the same. Those who are smart enough, resourceful enough and willing to put in the work will be the ones who excel.