There’s an old adage that suggests if you really want to get something done, ask someone busy to do it. Other than her all-world hockey talent, that might help explain why Hayley Wickenheiser is so accomplished. In fact, one of the most challenging aspects Wickenheiser finds about her studies at the University of Calgary’s school of medicine is that she’s required to sit for hours in lectures. For someone who’s hard-wired to move, that’s a big ask.
“I’ve really noticed the sedentary lifestyle that goes into being a student in medical school,” Wickenheiser said. “So I actually just built a gym at my house just so I can squeeze in a couple of other hours a day for training. Your physical well-being is just as important as what you’re learning. That’s something that, as an athlete, I won’t compromise.”
When the greatest women’s player ever to play the game and a shoo-in for the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2020 isn’t sitting in lectures, she occupies her time being the assistant director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs. She’s also a member of the IOC’s athletes’ commission, on the committee that is distributing the funds for victims of the Humboldt Broncos bus crash and running Wick Hockey, a worldwide grassroots hockey initiative. Wickenheiser recently took a couple of minutes from her busy schedule – albeit while doing some grocery shopping – to talk to The Hockey News.
THN: Someone told me you recently said that doing medical school is like drinking from a fire hose. What did you mean by that?HW: Well, exactly what it sounds like. There’s a lot of information thrown at you and the most important thing is figuring out what you need to know. What’s important and what isn’t. In essence, you almost start at 50 percent of the knowledge and then you’re expected to learn the other 50 percent. It’s a lot of information.
THN: What have you learned about yourself since you’ve embarked on this journey?
HW: Obviously, I’m starting medical school at an older age and there are pros and cons to that, but my life as an athlete is really serving me well because I understand work ethic and time management and focus and all those things that you need. I’m pretty good at prioritizing things. I’ve learned that I do not enjoy sitting. I cannot stand sitting for hours at length and that’s very difficult when you have lectures and things like that to attend.
THN: How has school been going?
HW: As a lifelong learner in medicine, you’re in school with kids who are 20 years old right up to people in their 50s who are starting medicine. You can learn something from anybody at any time and I really enjoy the diversity of that and the different people who have come from all walks of life into medicine. We have a very diverse class, so that’s kind of fun.
THN: So at 40 you’re not the oldest kid in the class?
HW: No, I might just be over half, I think. I’m up there, but there are students that are older than I am and from all different walks of life. Calgary caters toward more toward mature students and that makes for a really interesting mix of people.
THN: So you’re still on the IOC athletes’ commission, you’re on the committee to distribute the Humboldt GoFundMe funds. Of course you working in player development with the Maple Leafs, you’re running Wick Hockey and doing medical school. Is there anything I’m missing?
HW: One of the big things is WickFest, which is coming up in November in Calgary and we’ve expanded to Surrey in January. That’s a 12-month-a-year thing, but I have people who work for me to actually run the event. A lot of things going, the big machine running all at once, but it’s all manageable. It’s all doable.
THN: The first time I talked to you, you were 14 and playing hockey in Shaunavon, Sask. You were somebody whom people were starting to talk about and it was a much simpler time. Back then, did you think this was going to lead to all of what you’re doing now? Did you think it would get this big when you were playing as a kid?
HW: No, I think you just play. As a kid you just play the game. I dreamed I would play in the NHL and I dreamed about Harvard med school. Those were two things that were kind of a pie-in-the-sky thing since I was little. To say I thought I would never be here would not be the case. I always thought I could. Everything has collided at once in terms of the Leafs and medicine. I guess the timing is not what I would have expected, but you learn to deal with it and manage it. It’s a good problem to have.
THN: How much of yourself are you able to give to your new job with the Maple Leafs?
HW: Every day I’m doing something related to hockey. I’m watching video or meeting with players. Last night I had dinner with a player. I’m in Toronto four to six days a month and I’m watching games and players in the west. I follow the Marlies and the Leafs pretty closely and also the prospects we have in the Western League.
THN: You sound like you’re on your way somewhere right now? Where are you?
HW: I’m just grabbing some groceries. Nothing glamorous. Just walking into the store here.
THN: What does your typical day look like?
HW: They vary a lot, but I would say, but when I’m at home I’m usually up by 5:30 or 6 and I either do work before I go to class or I do hockey work, maybe watching video. Then I’m at med school for a large portion of the day, then I typically try to work out for an hour or two a day, then I feed my son (Noah) and get him off to whatever he’s doing and then usually I work again, whether it’s hockey or medicine until 10 or 11 at night and get up and do it all over again. Except if I’m on the road or travelling.
THN: Do you see yourself working in the NHL on the coaching side or the management side?
HW: To be honest, I haven’t given it a lot of thought at this point. I’m just really about this particular role because it allows me to be on the ice and coach, but I don’t have to be in the environment every day so I can finish medicine. I honestly don’t really know at this point where this will take me, but it’s something I really enjoy.
THN: Are you going to be able to do your program in the allotted time or are you going to have to take longer because of everything that is on your plate?
HW: I have 2-1/2 years left. It’s a three-year program in Calgary, a bit of an accelerated version and a little more of a flexible type of program. So I’ll finish those 2-1/2 years and then I’ll figure out where it takes me, but I would like to combine it with the hockey stuff. Emergency trauma is what I like, the specialty I would go into if I specialized in anything.
THN: What about emergency trauma appeals to you?
HW: I think it speaks to the hockey life, which is the adrenaline. The game of hockey is never the same thing twice when you step out on the ice and it’s the same with emergency medicine, you never know what’s going to come through the door. I like the variety, I like the lifestyle and I like the fact that you are on a team. It’s like being on a hockey team. Everyone has an ego that you need to manage, but at the same time you have to make high-pressure decisions in a limited time frame and everyone has to do their jobs to be successful. The fast-paced action of it is sort of who I am anyway.
THN: Have you had a chance to do any practical work in that field?
HW: Oh yeah. Through the years, I’ve spent hundreds of hours shadowing in the ER. When I had downtime as a player, I would go into the ER a doctor in Calgary who is a friend of mine, so I’ve seen a lot already. Being a med student, I’ve been in the ER and done procedures and things like that already.
THN: What’s the most traumatic thing you’ve seen?
HW: People in medicine will tell you that you never forget your first tragedy. For me, it was a 19-year-old boy who overdosed on fentanyl and he passed away. I did CPR on him. I will never forget him because of his youth and the tragedy of the situation. There are lots of those that happen, but there are cases where there are good outcomes as well. What I see in ER is how hard people work to give the best care possible regardless of outcome of the patient or who they are or where they come from. It’s really inspiring when you see how paramedics and fire co-ordinate with the trauma team and the nurses and the doctors and everybody working together to do their jobs. Those are things that are really interesting to me because of my background in team sports.
THN: One last question. In 2020 you’ll almost certainly be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Jarome Iginla. That seems like some very good symmetry. It seems fitting that the two of you would be eligible to get in at the same time.
HW: That would be cool. I’ve known Jarome a long time and I’ve skated with him in the off-season. He’s one of the good ones in hockey. Just a good human being and he had an awesome career. I watched him a lot living here in Calgary. And just knowing him off the ice, definitely that’s a no-brainer.
THN: You’re never going to play again, right?
HW: Nope. I’m done.