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Hayley Wickenheiser signs one-year deal with Swedish men's team

Hayley Wickenheiser wasn't going to let one sour experience in the Swedish men's hockey leagues stop her from playing there again.

The captain of the Canadian women's hockey team has signed a one-year contract with the third-tier club Eskilstuna Linden.

She'll join the team in August after serving as a CBC colour commentator for Olympic softball in Beijing.

Wickenheiser tried out for Arboga in the same league last September. After scoring two goals in the team's first exhibition game last week, the club's general manager said it was "looking good" to sign the forward.

But she was abruptly cut from the team after a second exhibition game because the coach decided he didn't want her.

Eskilstuna Linden quickly stepped up with a contract offer, but Wickenheiser decided the timing wasn't right for her and she returned to Canada for a more stable situation for her family.

Eskilstuna's dogged pursuit of her since then proved to her she was wanted.

The club brought a busload of people, including a girls' hockey team, from Eskilstuna to the Four Nations Cup in Leksand last November to watch Wickenheiser play for the Canadian women.

"They seemed enthusiastic and very genuinely interested in me coming to play there," Wickenheiser said Tuesday from Calgary. "It's a big part of why I decided to go back because I feel very comfortable with this group as well as the head coach."

Head coach Mattias Karlin was a Boston Bruins draft pick who spent two seasons in the AHL with Providence and also played for Modo in the Swedish Elite League.

"Initially last year, it was our coach who wanted us to contact her," Eskilstuna GM Kove Hellgren said from Sweden. "They've met and they have the same views. I think it suits Hayley fine."

Eskilstuna has given Wickenheiser permission to leave the club for her national women's team commitments, which are a camp in Calgary in September, the Four Nations Cup in Lake Placid, N.Y., in November and the 2009 women's world championship next April in Finland.

The 29-year-old from Shaunavon, Sask., became the first female player other than a goaltender to play in a men's pro hockey league in 2003 when she spent parts of two seasons with Kirkkonummi Salamat in Finland.

She had three goals and 16 assists in 40 games there.

Wickenheiser is the all-time leading scorer on the Canadian women's team with 130 goals and 150 assists in 188 games.

She was named MVP of both the 2006 Olympic women's hockey tournament and 2007 world championship. Wickenheiser has played in three Olympic Games and eight world championships.

"She has been in the top level of women's ice hockey for 15 years now and our team needs her experience," Hellgren said.

Wickenheiser will be the second-oldest player on the team, which opens the 2008-09 season on Sept. 21.

She feels playing a 45-game schedule with Eskilstuna will make her a better player as she prepares for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

"For me, I'm always looking to push myself and become better and I felt like I needed to get out of my comfort zone again," she explained.

"Repetition and working on your skill set at a high level and a high speed against players who are bigger, stronger and faster is always a good thing. When I come back to the women's game, I have more time and space so it helps my poise and patience on the ice.

"It made me a better player the first time I went over and I expect it to be the same this time."

Wickenheiser's boyfriend Tomas Pacina and their eight-year old son Noah will move with her to Eskilstuna, which is about 150 kilometres west of Stockholm.

Pacina is a skills coach for the Florida Panthers so he'll have an occasional commute to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., but he'll also do some scouting and consulting for Eskilstuna.

The club also helped Wickenheiser with school arrangements for Noah.

Eskilstuna, whose top sponsor is the automaker Volvo, will provide Wickenheiser with a furnished house, two cars and a modest salary.

"You're not getting rich. I'm making a salary I can live off of, but for us and what I'm looking for, they've come through," Wickenheiser said. "They've been very good at taking care of every detail."

The immediate challenge for Wickenheiser is to stay in shape in Beijing while she provides colour commentary for Olympic softball. She played softball for Canada in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

She's not an Olympian this time and that makes it harder to find training facilities.

"I'm trying to get myself a pass to go to the athletes village and use the gym, but being media I realize they don't want me there," Wickenheiser said with a chuckle.

"If that doesn't work, I'm going to have a program set up where if I don't have access to a weight room, I'll do skating imitations or running. I've been creative before, so if I'm working out in my hotel room or running down the streets of Beijing, I guess that's what I'm going to have to do."


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