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Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser’s second act

Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Hayley Wickenheiser waves to the crowd before a Toronto Maple Leafs game in 2019. (Mark Blinch/NHLI via Getty Images)

When Team Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser is asked if she will be watching any of the Winter Olympic competitions in Beijing, she is matter of fact in her response.

“I wouldn’t be able to watch most of it,” she says. “They’ll be going live in the middle of the night, and I’ll either be working or sleeping.”

So is retired life for one the greatest hockey players ever to take the ice.

Wickenheiser has an impressive Olympic medal collection — a silver from 1998 and four golds from 2002-14 — not to mention the various other medals and awards from the many international competitions she’s played in throughout her illustrious hockey career. It is unusual for an athlete of her caliber to dismiss the idea of watching the very event she had participated in five times in her life. But then again, most retired athletes are not trying to get through their first year of medical residency.

Since she was young, Wickenheiser envisioned becoming a doctor one day. When she was 10 years old, a friend of hers was struck by a delivery truck and hospitalized. Wickenheiser visited her friend every day that she could, and observing the doctors and nurses who were helping not only her friend but other patients ignited a flame inside of her.

From there began her hockey journey, one that took her on a long and winding road through many countries and championship games at the highest level of her sport. She even found time to play softball some summers, and did well enough to make the 2000 Canadian Olympic team. It appeared as if all of Wickenheiser’s dreams were coming true, but she still hadn’t lost sight of her other passion.

Wickenheiser always knew she needed to have a life after hockey. In 2017, after retiring from her playing career and finishing her degree in kinesiology at the University of Calgary, she enrolled at the university’s Cumming School of Medicine.

Now in residency after graduating last spring, Wickenheiser is a first-year all over again and loving every moment of it.

“I really enjoy going from a veteran in one area to a rookie in another,” Wickenheiser says. “In the midst of a global pandemic, we may not get the same amount of hands-on experience because everything is more virtual now, [but] I think I’ve had incredible mentorship and incredible experience. And with a good perspective on your experience and your mentors that have taught you along the way, you maybe forget about when you’re a veteran [like I was] in hockey. You get back to a growth mindset, and I enjoy being a rookie every day.”

Entering the medical field at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic was enough to fill any retired athlete’s plate. It was also perfectly fulfilling for Wickenheiser, who was doing what she had set out to do as a kid growing up in Saskatchewan, Canada and later Calgary.

That’s when Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Kyle Dubas came calling. Hockey, it seemed, didn’t want medicine to have Wickenheiser all to itself.

“I actually thought I had retired from hockey and I thought I’d never be in hockey again,” she recalls. “I thought I would move onto medicine and I didn’t expect to work in the NHL.”

Dubas offered Wickenheiser a position as the Maple Leafs’ assistant director of player development in 2018. She accepted, and prior to the 2021 season was promoted to senior director of player development. While the NHL role brings her back to the ice, she finds clear parallels between it and the time she spends in examination rooms away from the arena.

“I use every day what I use in medicine: watch a player, see a move they may have done, see where the deficiencies are on and off the ice, as well as the psychology of being an elite athlete. I think I can really relate to a lot of these players,” Wickenheiser says. “It’s our duty, whether it’s junior player, American League hockey player or NHL player, to help them get better on and off the ice.”

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Wickenheiser celebrates Canada's gold medal at the 2014 Sochi Games, one of four she won in her career. (Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

As one of few women in an executive role in a male sports league, Wickenheiser knows that eyes are on her, and that doesn’t bother her.

“I feel I’m opening eyes. I see myself as a trailblazer when I played, and I see myself as a trailblazer in my role with the Leafs,” says Wickenheiser, who’s in the most senior hockey operations position ever held by a woman. “I feel that I’m opening doors to legitimate hockey roles.”

Wickenheiser, 43, seems every bit as passionate about her roles as medical practitioner and Leafs player development director as she was as a player. She has to be if she wants to achieve the standards to which she holds herself.

A center on the Canadian national team for 23 years, Wickenheiser finished her hockey career as Canada’s all-time points leader with 168 goals and 211 assists. She won four gold medals — tying her with Jayna Hefford and Caroline Ouellette for the most by a Canadian Olympian — and one silver medal in five Winter Games, to go along with seven world championship titles. In 2019, Wickenheiser was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in her first year on the ballot.

Nowadays, during her turn on rotation at the hospital, she will occasionally reach into her athlete bag as a reminder that the challenging periods will pass. Conversely, when she’s at the arena, she’ll look in her doctor’s bag and help the players diagnose and assess their games as she would a patient’s health. She’s finding that her two worlds collide in many more ways than she would have thought.

Right now, about the only thing missing from Wickenheiser’s life is time. Her retirement, ironically, doesn’t leave her much of it. She managed to squeeze in writing a second book, and recently she helped design a hockey stick for women between her two jobs. Outside of that, she’s spending as many of her waking hours with her family as she can.

With Canada set to face the United States at the Olympics on Tuesday in Beijing (locally on Monday, 11:10 p.m. ET), Wickenheiser hasn’t had time to re-immerse herself into the rivalry she was at the center of for more than two decades. She misses the big stage of the Winter Olympics, but she’s happy to let the next generation of players own the spotlight. She has plenty of other tasks on her mind, after all.

“I work 24/7 in terms of my job with the Leafs and my job in medicine, but I love it. They’re my two loves. All my time is devoted to my family and my two jobs right now. I’m just trying to survive residency,” Wickenheiser says with a laugh. “It is a bit of sacrifice, but what I find more difficult is that my schedule is not my own, so I look forward to T-minus 18 months when I’ll have my schedule back, being done with residency. Then, I’ll have a chance to get my life back.”

Until then, Wickenheiser is perfectly content where she is in her labor of loves.

Ray Bala is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports based in Toronto, Canada.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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