June 18, 2024

THERE ARE OVERACHIEVERS. And then, there’s Hayley Wickenheiser.

The six-time Olympian and four-time gold medalist in women’s ice hockey has barely finished her shift helping deliver babies at a downtown Toronto hospital and is already going full speed discussing her latest sports-related passion project — the “Wick Stick.” And that’s to say nothing of Wickenheiser’s other important task, keeping constant tabs on her role as senior director of player development for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Somehow, Wickenheiser has made every transition look seamless. And she’s not one to miss an opportunity.

After retiring from an illustrious professional hockey career in 2017, Wickenheiser took on a very different challenge in pursuing a medical degree from the University of Calgary, which she earned last year. During that time, Wickenheiser also started working in the Leafs’ player development program and was promoted to her current role in May. Wickenheiser moved to Toronto full time, balancing her obligations to the Leafs and starting her medical residency. Now she regularly swaps between sweatsuits and scrubs, cycling through hospital department rotations (such as OB-GYN), then shifting her focus back to hockey.

In her rare free time, Wickenheiser has spearheaded the “Conquer COVID” initiative that gets needed medical supplies to front-line workers, continued to nurture her WickFest programs connecting young women with hockey and, most recently, designed her own hockey stick with Verbero equipment company.

That last item was a surprising first for Wickenheiser. Despite being the most decorated female hockey player of all time, no equipment company ever constructed a stick specifically with her input. The best Wickenheiser ever did was develop her own pattern (which constitutes a stick’s flex, grip, shape of the shaft, lie of the blade on the ice, and kick point), borrowing ideas from a couple of noted stick aficionados. She eventually rolled some of that knowledge into her own design.

“I actually got a [Jason] Spezza and an [Alex] Ovechkin stick and I put them together to make my own pattern, so it’s a hybrid between the two of those,” Wickenheiser told ESPN. “And I was able to do that for many years. Every equipment company I worked with always created the pattern that I wanted, but I never really had a say in any design. So [when I was approached to] design this stick, it has some of the history of my career going into it. My friend who runs WickFest with me, we came up with the ideas to give more input and draw our own drawings and give different design ideas to go into the stick. We put a lot of effort into the design process and it was great.”

When Wickenheiser was first approached by Verbero owner/CEO Andy Sutton about collaborating on a stick, she thought it was a terrific chance to finally create equipment targeted toward women. And this wasn’t like Wickenheiser was just endorsing something for Verbero; she would have a hand in making branded items that have been absent from the female marketplace.

That was an important benchmark for Wickenheiser, as was the kinship she felt with Sutton through their professional backgrounds. Sutton played nearly 700 NHL games over 13 seasons, patrolling blue lines for the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota Wild, Atlanta Thrashers, New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators, Anaheim Ducks and Edmonton Oilers. That experience, coupled with Sutton’s commitment to truly impact the women’s side of the game, is what drew in Wickenheiser.

“I felt like Andy had a genuine interest in the female game and wanting to actually do something to support young girls and hockey players,” she said. “I think he understands that the female market is quite large in hockey and not many people have really tapped into the fact that women are the majority purchasers and they’re the decision-makers in the home for purchasing a lot of these things. And not only that, women love watching hockey and playing hockey. I was really refreshed in talking to him about his understanding of that.”

The final product Wickenheiser came up with for her Wick Stick is a limited Team Canada edition (she was born in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan) that has a Canadian flag pattern on what Verbero bills as “the lightest and most balanced stick ever.”

Wickenheiser jokes she’s “not a big fan of pink” but says younger female players are often drawn to the color. So perhaps those tones will be worked into a future stick, since Wickenheiser will do just about anything to see the best possible equipment getting into more girls’ hands.

“Having young women get the opportunity to buy a stick that’s targeted to them in the female market, from a female player, I just hope it can grow other opportunities for other female players to do the same,” Wickenheiser said. “To really get the women’s side of the game professionalized as much on the equipment side as it’s trying to be on the actual hockey side of things is huge. I think it will open things up and I hope that will help open up a new market or a new idea of thinking about the equipment business for young girls and their families, but especially for girls in general that want sticks.”

SUTTON STILL CAN’T believe it took so long.

Just look at Wickenheiser’s résumé: The 43-year-old made her World Championships’ debut in 1994, represented Canada dozens of times over two decades, was the leading scorer for Canada’s women’s national team (168 goals and 211 assists in 276 games), was a two-time Olympics MVP, and became the first woman skater to play for a professional men’s team. Plus, Wickenheiser represented Canada at the 2000 Summer Olympics in softball. She’s that level of athlete.

And yet, despite all Wickenheiser’s accomplishments, no equipment brand had ever offered to design a stick for her — until now.

“The Wick Stick has never been done, which is just crazy,” Sutton said. “That’s like saying Wayne Gretzky’s never had a custom stick graphic. It’s absolutely insane that that’s never happened. So my background, Hayley’s background, the product itself, the fact that we’re pushing forward to really bring prominence to some of these things, it’s a huge thing.”

Sutton has channeled his own post-playing career passion into growing Verbero, a company he acquired in December 2019 after spending several years working for another multibrand hockey company. The goal was to create a business model that didn’t exist elsewhere, offering on-demand apparel, headwear, gloves and other equipment that would target previous gaps in the equipment space.

Working with Wickenheiser was “an easy sell” for Sutton, and it opened the door to an extended collaboration with her on WickFest. Wickenheiser started the female hockey event 13 years ago and invites young women from all over to experience workshops and clinics put on by some of the sports’ brightest minds.

Sutton was on board to help Wickenheiser expand on the equipment and apparel side.

“These sticks were sort of a group effort between our camp and her camp,” Sutton said. “We went through probably six or seven different iterations until we got [the right look]. We’re going to do a team store for Haley, we’re going to do a store for WickFest. The collaboration itself is impactful in my mind and then just making sure that people understand that there’s a focus on women’s hockey and performance and equipping women with the things that they deserve and that they should have. So much of it’s been an oversight; there’s just no emphasis on holding the women in the same regard as the men.”

To that end, one of the first things Sutton did with Verbero was investigate working with more female athletes. He started by creating the first-ever female-inspired stick graphic with Blake Bolden, who had made history twice over.

In 2013, Bolden became the first African American player to be selected in the first round (fifth overall) by a Canadian Women’s Hockey League team (the Boston Blades) and, in 2015, Bolden became the first African American woman to compete in the National Women’s Hockey League.

Prior to working with Verbero, Bolden was very familiar with the difficulties women face in getting proper equipment. While playing at Boston College from 2009-13, she had some choice in what to use because the team had a sponsor providing it with supplies. But things were quite different when Bolden stepped into the professional realm.

“Women’s hockey wasn’t at the point where we received whatever we wanted,” she said. “It was more like whatever was available. We were given what we got.”

Bolden, 30, recalled making DIY adjustments to the male equipment she could find in order to get by.

“There definitely wasn’t a differentiation between men’s and women’s fit [with equipment],” she said. “I remember always cutting pads out of things that felt too bulky and personalizing my equipment to fit my needs. It was old school, but it worked at the time. As a woman, my body is different, naturally in size and shape, so the gap is there for sure.”

That’s what drew Bolden to Sutton and Verbero, a company that was truly interested in listening to female players and crafting products that worked for their specific game. Those luxuries male players took for granted finally felt within reach to Bolden.

“Andy [has] his vision and passion for a new way of creating and selling hockey equipment,” she said. “It’s a way that’s affordable and custom. Everyone has a style, and hockey style is important. It gives you confidence, it’s quite literally your protection. It’s nice to feel and look good so you can play good.”

CHERYL POUNDER KNEW her male counterparts were given their pick of equipment.

The future two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion certainly was not.

“You were just so happy to get a stick. Which is sad, right?” Pounder said. “It’s sad that that’s sort of the reality. Up to that point you maybe made it through to your first national team, you paid for everything yourself. And then all of a sudden you’re being handed something that’s free and you were like, ‘Oh, OK, I’ll try this.’ You had to take that, as opposed to being able to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t really suit me.'”

Being grateful for what you could get is a constant refrain from female players, so few of whom have ever been catered to the way male players are.

In Pounder’s case, she learned early on to embrace hand-me-downs, since nothing better seemed to be on the horizon.

“You always got your brother’s stuff, or your brother’s skates, and I was using a tree for a stick,” Pounder recalled of growing up in the sport. “You just wore what you had to wear. As I got older, I became more aware of the way things fit, but there weren’t a lot of options. And we also only had a few sticks per year, and you got your one pair of skates and that was kind of it.

“I was a little bit low maintenance probably because I was more of a stay-at-home defender; I was more of a physical player as opposed to a finesse player, but certainly having the right sticks for me was big. [Our access to those] changed over time, but it didn’t change a whole lot.”

Pounder recalled being given a stick with an 87 flex (denoting how much the stick will bend when shooting), which was a huge number for someone with her 145-pound frame. She would heat up sticks on the stove to manipulate the curve properly since companies wouldn’t do it for her. And factors such as grip strength and hand size weren’t taken into consideration for female players — Pounder points out she has “small paws” and would struggle to hold the castoff sticks well.

“At the 2002 Winter Olympics, the stick was like a tree,” she said. “But that flex I had was still better than when we were growing up. I think you just got handed what you got handed and the attention and detail wasn’t put into it. I wasn’t as physically strong as a man and I couldn’t flex a stick that was that high.”

Toward the end of Pounder’s career in 2007, she was able to get a stick made with her own flex — a copy of Nicklas Lidstrom’s — that suited her well. Now, as a mother of two daughters who are heavily involved in hockey, Pounder is conscious of making strides for this next generation of female players who ideally won’t have to be so creative in getting equipment prepared for their wants and needs.

“Hockey is hockey. That’s what we’re preaching all across the board,” Pounder said. “However, the body inside the sport is a little bit different. I feel like there’s no reason why there aren’t [more options] for sticks and even chest protectors. Like, we have boobs. And the sticks for me is a whole other avenue that I think needs to be explored from grip strength to hand size because a woman can be very strong, and a junior stick is not going to be [right] for her either. There could be more research done in that field in particular, and I’m much more conscious of it with my girls now.”

EQUALITY IN HOCKEY can feel a long way off. Although certain inroads are being made at the NHL level with a few female scouts and referees popping up, and women such as Wickenheiser getting involved in player development or front-office roles, there are still large swaths with no representation at all. The NHL still has no female coaches. And there aren’t even female equipment managers.

At the American Hockey League level, Steph Klein stands alone in that department. She has been the assistant equipment manager for the Toronto Marlies since 2020, honing her craft in pro shops where she was the only woman employee. Klein was a goaltender for years and learned to appreciate equipment through that. When her playing days ended, she wanted to stay involved with that aspect of the sport.

But Klein didn’t exactly have a role model to follow.

“There were no female equipment managers who I could look at and say, ‘This is someone I want to be,'” Klein said. “It was always, and still is, I guess, a male-dominated field. Which is also maybe why there’s not as much women’s equipment out there.”

Klein mentions CCM as the only major company with a line of protective equipment for women. That development came about just in the past year or so, and the pivot toward championing and elevating female players still feels slow. That’s where Wickenheiser’s presence becomes so critical.

It’s the “see it to be it” mentality, and Wickenheiser knows how crucial it can be. Women need to see other women represented, succeeding and thriving so they too can feel confident in pursuing their own goals and dreams, not matter how lofty. That passion is what drives Wickenheiser in all she does, from navigating medical training to NHL development to grassroots hockey efforts to designing new gear.

Wickenheiser’s most valuable asset, though, is her legacy, and the powerful voice she has to amplify causes that matter to her. To make hockey better for this generation and beyond, Wickenheiser says she will wield that energy however she can.

“I just don’t know that [generally] there’s a real genuine initiative to understand, until maybe in the last year or two, the female hockey market,” she said. “It’s not only just about making equipment that’s specifically for females, but it’s just understanding girls in hockey, the amount of girls that are playing, the opportunity that exists. We create hockey sticks and brands that have [Sidney] Crosby and Ovechkin and [Connor] McDavid on them, but we don’t do that as much, or even at all, for a female player. And I think that it’s time for that.”