TORONTO - Canadian women's hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser said she'll know that her sport is making strides based on the questions she gets from the media at the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia.
Wickenheiser was the captain of the Olympic team that won gold earlier this year in Vancouver. After doing a quick post-game TV interview, she met with a pool of reporters and was given a question she hears all too often.
"It was 'Hey, does women's hockey really belong in the Olympics?'" Wickenheiser said.
The veteran forward said it was "really disappointing" to hear that so soon after the win. She's hoping events like the world hockey summit will help generate awareness and strengthen the game so that the focus can be about the competition instead.
Wickenheiser was the main speaker Thursday at a session devoted to women's hockey. She's hoping the sport can ride the momentum from a successful tournament in Vancouver and blossom over the next four years. And she doesn't want to hear that question again when she steps off the ice in Sochi.
"If we could accomplish that, then I think we've come a long way."
There is plenty of work to be done.
Canada and the United States are the powerhouses in women's hockey and Finland and Sweden have iced decent teams over the last few years. But the rest of the world is very far behind.
Creating more parity and depth in the game was a key topic for Wickenheiser and the other panellists, including Canadian coach Mel Davidson, U.S. coach Mark Johnson and Arto Sieppi, Finland's female hockey director. They discussed a variety of subjects, including the role of national federations and how to get more girls on the ice.
One idea that was mentioned was the possibility of creating one main professional women's league, like a hockey version of basketball's WNBA. Stakeholders in the women's game met with NHL officials to discuss the idea earlier in the week.
"Clearly, they’re looking for some NHL help," said NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly. "But that help can take a variety of forms. Obviously, we have experience and expertise in certain areas of the game that, if they ever formed a league, that we can be helpful with."
Daly would not go into the specifics of the meeting.
"We want to be helpful and facilitate the growth of women’s hockey," Daly said. "Because ultimately it benefits the National Hockey League, and the game generally."
While the quality of play is strong at the world championship and Olympic level, it's tough getting quality teams on the ice in countries where interest in women's hockey is minimal. As noted during Thursday's presentation, some countries have only a few hundred players who participate.
Davidson said having women's hockey on the summit agenda could be a springboard for bigger things down the road.
"Just the fact that we're here, we're visible, we're talking about it and people are asking the questions is a huge step," she said.
International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said he was impressed with the panel discussion.
"They didn’t speak about money," Fasel said. "They spoke about the passion, they spoke about the game."
Some of the biggest challenges for women's hockey are clearing financial hurdles and generating interest. There are no quick fixes but Wickenheiser said getting the opportunity to talk with the sport's movers and shakers can only help.
"We've got these people in the room," Wickenheiser said. "They've listened and we'll see what can come of it."
Women's hockey made its Olympic debut in 1998, when the United States beat Canada for gold. Canada has not lost an Olympic game since.
The 2014 tournament could be the last time Wickenheiser puts on an Olympic uniform. She is 32 now and has spent half her life with the national team. Wickenheiser's comments near the end of her 10-minute speech indicated that Sochi would be her Olympic swan song.
But she clarified her remarks afterward when asked about her post-Sochi plans by reporters.
"I don't know if I'll keep playing or if I'll retire," Wickenheiser said. "I haven't thought that far ahead. But I know that I will play the next four years."
Wickenheiser later released a statement to further clarify her intentions.
"The news of my retirement is premature," she said. "I haven’t actually made any decisions. I unintentionally created a bit of a misunderstanding. Today is about women’s hockey, not about me. I am happy to be part of this game, as are tens of thousands of young women across the globe in our growing sport. Let's continue the discussion about what is being achieved here for the future of women's hockey..."
Wickenheiser, who has won three Olympic gold medals and six world championships over her career, will be 36 at the Sochi Games. She knows what she'd like to be asked at the Olympics the next time around.
"The question I think I'd want to hear is 'What happened in the last four years for women's hockey to have such a competitive tournament at the Olympics?'" she said.
—With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Sean Fitz-Gerald