**Hayley Wickenheiser is a true sporting icon in Canada. She made her debut for the women’s national ice hockey team at the tender age of 15 and has since gone on to win four Olympic gold medals (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014) and seven world championship titles (1994, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2007 and 2012).
With that track record it should come as no surprise that the 36-year-old is considered one of the best ice hockey players in the world and is seen as an exemplary role model. That even extends to members of Canada’s women’s national football team, who will vie for glory at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2015™ on home soil this summer, with Wickenheiser cheering them on.
“Over the years ice hockey and soccer have been the two most popular female sports in Canada,” she told FIFA.com. “I had the chance to meet the women of the national team and become friends with some of them. We spoke, shared stories and inside knowledge of what we go through in hockey. Their rise to success sort of parallels what we’ve done in hockey - we just started earlier with it.”
*And Wickenheiser, who assisted the Final Draw for the 2015 World Cup, admits to being a football fan: “I enjoy watching soccer and going to matches. When we travel with the national ice hockey team we often go to games around the world, wherever we might be - be it Juventus or Bayern Munich. I enjoy the game. I’ve probably watched more men’s matches than women’s ones, just because access to them is easier. I lived in Europe for a few years in Finland and Sweden and there’s nothing like a live football game. It’s a special experience.”
Wickenheiser made history during her time in Finland, where she spent half a season at Kirrkonummi Salamat in the country’s second division and became the first woman to register a point in a professional men’s match. Yet despite that experience, she is reluctant to draw comparisons between men’s and women’s sports.
I’m more engaged and entertained by a women’s football match than a men’s one because it’s less predictable.
“Women’s hockey will never be men’s hockey and we will never be the NHL,” she said. “Neither do I think that women’s football has to be the same as men’s. For me it’s a more entertaining game. I find female football players are tougher. They seem to battle on the field.
"They play with a lot of passion and there’s a lot more room out there when you are not as big as the men. It’s the same with us in hockey. It’s more of a possession-based game and more unexpected things happen. I’m more engaged and entertained by a women’s football match than a men’s one because it’s less predictable.”
The world’s finest female players will have the chance to showcase their ability this summer when the Women’s World Cup kicks off on 6 June. And Wickenheiser is confident her country will provide the perfect platform for them to do so.
“Canada will impress the world,” she said of her homeland, which stretches from the Atlantic coast in the east to the Pacific in the west and as far north as the Arctic Ocean. “There will be 55,000 people in the stadium for Canada’s opening game in Edmonton.
"It’ll be a rocking atmosphere. People have really embraced our team. Their performance in London showed that they’re on the world’s stage and they’ve won the hearts of the Canadians. Canada will also embrace the other countries that come over.”
As if to emphasise her point, the congenial Wickenheiser adds with a smile: “A lot of people said to me at the draw: ‘I can’t believe how nice Canadians are!’ That’s just our spirit and we’re a very good host country.” In light of such hospitality, the tournament cannot come soon enough.