Career Advice, Executive Feature

“Never Conform to Societal Expectations”: Olympic Athlete Hayley Wickenheiser’s Secret to Career Success

The odds of becoming a professional hockey player aren’t great — about .02 percent, by some estimates — but Hayley Wickenheiser has never put much stock in odds. If she had, it’s doubtful she would have become the world’s best female ice hockey player, a six-time Olympic athlete (for both ice hockey and softball) or the first woman to play full-time professional hockey in a position other than goalie.

Growing up, Wickenheiser “had many people make remarks about [her] involvement in hockey,” largely because she played mostly on boys’ teams growing up, as there were so few options available for women hockey players at the time. “If I had listened to those people and followed the traditional expectations of society, I would have dropped out of a hockey a long, long time ago,” she added.

Although Wickenheiser officially retired from ice hockey last year, she’s not content to rest on her laurels. Currently, she’s an investor in second-hand sports gear trading site SidelineSwap, an active philanthropist and, at the age of 39, an incoming first-year medical student. Suffice it to say, Wickenheiser knows a thing or two about hard work, determination and what it takes to pursue your dream career.

Glassdoor recently got the chance to chat with Wickenheiser, who shared her thoughts on making it to the big leagues, the gender pay gap and her upcoming career pivot to the medical field — here’s what she had to say.

Glassdoor: It takes a lot of drive to get to where you are today — was it always your dream job to be a professional hockey player?

Hayley Wickenheiser: I started playing hockey on outdoor rinks in my hometown of Shaunavon when I was about five. I was instantly drawn to the sport because of how it made me feel while I was playing it, so I continued to take it seriously and practice constantly on club teams and in my spare time. I didn’t necessarily practice with the intentions of making hockey my professional career — it sort of just happened. I practiced for the sake of having fun, and I happened to find myself getting progressively better. Once the opportunity presented itself to represent Alberta at the 18-and-under Canada Winter Games in 1991, I was thrilled. That is when my career really took off and I started to see the potential of making this passion of mine an actual career. Three years after the winter games, I was drafted to Canada’s National Women’s Team and remained a member until I retired in 2017.

Glassdoor: What was the most difficult part of your journey to becoming a professional athlete?

Hayley Wickenheiser: I started playing hockey when it had very little recognition as a professional sport for females. Most of my younger life, I played with boys because there were so few options for women hockey players at that time. There have been plenty of ups and downs in my career, but perhaps the toughest part of the “journey” itself was not the jeers from teammates, but from their parents and competitors’ parents. Adults can be really off-side. They didn’t like a girl competing and most certainly didn’t like a girl beating their boys. It was a different time even 20 years ago. But once I came out of the boiler room or wherever I was changing and hit the ice, I always felt at home. I felt perfectly at ease.

Glassdoor: Did you ever feel like you faced a lot of hurdles because of your gender?

Hayley Wickenheiser: It was hard to play hockey as a young female as it is considered to be a “male-dominated” sport. I played exclusively on all-boys teams growing up which was difficult from the team interaction perspective. I didn’t always have the same team camaraderie that most young athletes get. I ended up having to focus my attention on me, which I think helped me in the long run. When I got on the ice I would be in my element. I played for me, and that’s ultimately what gave me the drive to keep pushing myself.

Glassdoor: Between #MeToo, #TimesUp and an increasing spotlight on the gender wage gap, this past year has been a sea change for women in the workplace. How have you seen these movements play out in the world of athletics?

Hayley Wickenheiser: The biggest movement in women’s hockey that I’ve seen in my career was the gender wage gap. After the 1998 Olympic Games where Women’s Hockey made its first appearance, Canada’s Women’s Hockey Team brought home a medal but was barely even recognized for it. We knew we had to use our voices and demand respect, so we set some ground rules with Hockey Canada, which included a pay raise. This was really one of the first talked-about wage gap movements in women’s hockey. While it still is stigmatized today and we may not necessarily get the same amount of support as our male counterparts, I think they’re definitely making changes and going in the right direction.

Glassdoor: Let’s talk a little bit more about what you’re up to today. Can you tell us about your charity work and your work with SidelineSwap?

Hayley Wickenheiser: I’ve always been passionate about charitable work — especially in the field of sports. Many young girls are dropping out of sports at alarming rates, so I do my best to support and volunteer for events such as Jumpstart Games for Girls which encourages girls to stay in sports. I have also created Wick Hockey, which is an international initiative to grow the grassroots of the game of hockey across the world. Many kids would like to break into this sport, but it’s not accessible to everyone. Between the lack of teams across the globe and the expensive equipment, there is a huge barrier to entry in this sport. With Wick Hockey, we implement hockey camps in countries and towns with low involvement (such as Harbin and Shanghai, China), we work with locals in countries around the world to develop hockey initiatives, and much more.

I also founded WickFest, which is an international girls hockey festival that is a hockey tournament at its heart, but includes life and leadership skills off the ice. It’s a holistic approach to developing not just the athlete but the young women. Proceeds from that are donated back into the youth sports community that helps keep sports accessible. I am pretty passionate about that.

This is also why I became an investor in SidelineSwap — to make sports more accessible to children across the globe. SidelineSwap is a site where athletes can sell and buy gently-used sports gear. Hockey is a very expensive sport to break into because the gear is not only costly, but it constantly has to be replaced because of the wear and tear it goes through. SidelineSwap provides athletes a chance to make money off of gear they no longer use, and gives others a chance to buy this gear at roughly a 50 percent discount of the normal retail value. This is a huge breakthrough and allows more people to join and help grow the hockey community. I felt so passionately about their mission to make sports more affordable that I jumped on the opportunity to invest in them.

Glassdoor: What advice would you give to somebody hoping to follow in your footsteps?

Hayley Wickenheiser: My advice is to never conform to societal expectations. While my family was extremely supportive throughout my time as a young athlete, I had many people make remarks about my involvement in hockey. If I had listened to those people and followed the traditional expectations of society, I would have dropped out of a hockey a long, long time ago. I want all young athletes to ignore the judgment and stereotypes and pursue what they love, regardless of what others think about their choices.

Glassdoor: Okay, now for a couple of fun ones —if you hadn’t gone into athletics, what would you want to be?

Hayley Wickenheiser: A doctor for sure… and guess what? Now that sports as a career is done, that’s exactly what I’m going to do! I start med school this summer.

Glassdoor: What are a few fun facts that people might not know about you?

Hayley Wickenheiser: I play guitar — terribly, but I play it. My son hates hockey, like seriously hates it! He brought a Harry Potter book to the 2010 Olympic gold medal game to read during the game. Though I have stopped playing hockey, I still train several hours per day. And finally, if I didn’t choose hockey and softball to go the Olympics, I would have considered cycling. I love cycling.

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