Hockey Star's Mission Is Far From Impossible

Associated Press

After three months in Finland, the language barrier may be one of the few obstacles Hayley Wickenheiser hasn't conquered.

"Valkoinen? I know it means white," the color of her scrimmage jersey, she said. "Kaksi-yksi? I know that, too. That means we have a two-on-one on offense."

Leave it to hockey to provide the answers for the 24-year-old Wickenheiser, the MVP of Canada's gold medal-winning women's team at the Salt Lake City Olympics. The woman described as the female Wayne Gretzky has also won four world titles and scored 76 goals, with 88 assists, in nine years of playing for her country.

But when Wickenheiser came to Finland in December, it was for a shot at playing with men -- not women. And she had to prove herself all over again to players and coaches who she knew could be as cold and hard as the stuff they skated on.

"When I came here, I always had a worst-case scenario and was prepared to deal with criticism. I did not expect the whole thing to be so positive, so it was a nice surprise," she said.

In January, Wickenheiser joined Salamat -- which means lightning, another of the few Finnish words she knows. She has appeared in 12 regular season games and averaged 11-15 minutes per game on the third line, scoring one goal and four assists.

Approaching of the weekend, Salamat had a 1-0 lead in a best-of-three playoff series that could lead to a six-team round robin and a shot at the league title.

"I'm used to pressure situations, that's when I really play my best hockey. It's very exciting to play games that really matter," she said.

That doesn't mean Wickenheiser hasn't endured criticism.

"As much as I admire the determination and the barrier-breaking commitment of the multiple world champion and the MVP from Salt Lake City, I am pretty sure that there is no future in mixed hockey," wrote International Ice Hockey Federation President Rene Fasel in an editorial on the organization's Web site last month.

Szymon Szemberg, an IIHF spokesman, said Fasel's comments weren't a blind declaration against Wickenheiser or women in hockey -- just women in the men's league.

"Neither he nor the IIHF believes that this is a path that it wants to take and promote regarding women's hockey," Szemberg told Associated Press. "You simply cannot change nature. We don't believe that women have a future in men's hockey."

Wickenheiser disagreed.

"For sure, it's very difficult playing with men with the physical differences," she said. "I don't think there is any reason to make a rule, or stop it. If Fasel just could see the uniqueness of the situation, it would be a bit different."

Wickenheiser likened her experience with that of Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam, who will play against men at the PGA Tour's Colonial in May.

"I don't know Annika, but I think she wants to play at the highest level she can, and challenge herself," Wickenheiser said. "She's obviously the best in the women's game and she's the right woman to do it."

Wickenheiser said she didn't think there would be many other women -- if any -- who could play against men in hockey. Jussi Heimo, the editor of Finnish Ice Hockey magazine, agreed.

"Hayley is the only one," he said. "There is other talent out there, but they're much smaller and not so tough."

Wickenheiser, who is 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, has gone against 6-foot-3 defensemen weighing nearly 250 pounds. She has excelled in face-offs, holding the top spot on the team. And she has withstood the hits, which aren't allowed in women's hockey.

"We've used her in some power plays, but she's important in the shorthand situations. The face-offs in our zone are important then," Salamat Coach Matti Hagman said.

"She can go down, but she gets up without complaining, just like a real Canadian," said Hagman, a former NHL player with Edmonton and Boston.

Heimo said Wickenheiser's presence on the ice hasn't drawn overt criticism from fans. But there has been grumbling in the stands that opposing players aren't hitting her as hard because she is a woman.

"People accepted me as a part of the team, and the guys on the team show me a lot of respect," Wickenheiser said.

Off the ice, Wickenheiser thinks Finland is a lot like Canada, especially northern Ontario. Kirkkonummi is a 30-minute train ride west of the capital, Helsinki. It's cold, below freezing nearly every day.

Fortunately for Wickenheiser, her 2 1/2-year-old adopted son, Noah, is with her.

"The kid is a good traveler. Sometimes it's difficult on him with the jet lag and the always changing environment, but he seems to cope," she said.

On nights when Salamat plays, Noah can be found rink side at Varuboden Arena, a team flag in one hand, and his nanny, Janice Tomlin, beside him. Last month, Wickenheiser's sister, Jane, visited, too.

Inside the arena, a bulletin board is full of newspaper clippings from around Europe and North America about Noah's mom.

In April, Wickenheiser will play for Canada at the women's world championships in China. She could be a better player than the last time she took to the ice with Canada.

"Two-and-a-half months of daily practices with the players at this level, having to play the game at a quicker pace, is going to help me when I go back to the women," she said.

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