BETWEEN INTERVIEWS AFTER A PRACTICE IN VANCOUVER, HAYLEY WICKENHEISER stood to the side in the Olympic media zone doing lunges, stretching her hamstrings and performing cool-down exercises. She just can't help herself sometimes. "That," defenseman Carla MacLeod said, pointing to her teammate, "is my Exhibit A. [Her work ethic] is what sets her apart." ¶ Wickenheiser says she's just good at managing her time; her teammates say she's intense. At 31 and in her fifth Olympics—four Winter and one Summer, on Canada's softball team—the face of women's hockey shows few signs of aging. She's still the one doing extra sets of chin-ups and step-ups, literally running that extra mile. She's still so focused on the game that she'll leave for the rink unaware that she's tucked her jacket into her pants. When asked what it will take for her to retire, she bursts into laughter. "I don't know," she says. "Maybe if somebody rips my skates off my feet."
Even bladeless she'd be dangerous. Wickenheiser is no longer the unstoppable scorer she once was, but she elevates her teammates and still has the best shot in the women's game. Canada's captain had 11 points in five Olympic games, the team's second-highest total. "Playing on a big stage," U.S. defenseman Angela Ruggiero says, "she's someone who usually shows up on those occasions."
Wickenheiser isn't just another teammate or captain, she's a pioneer. One of the few women to play professional men's hockey, she became the first female to score a goal in a men's league while playing for a Finnish team in January 2003, and by now, 16 years into her career, Wickenheiser has become one of the most recognizable hockey players in Canada—man or woman. Her appeal reaches beyond the rinks where little girls lace up their skates and dream of making the national team, becoming the next Hayley Wickenheiser. She also gets fan mail from young boys. "Ten years ago that wasn't so much the case," she says. "That is where you know you're getting across to the whole spectrum of people."
Dane Phaneuf didn't send her a letter, but he did pay her a compliment of sorts last November during a Midget Series game between the women's national team and Edmonton SSAC. The 15-year-old brother of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion shadowed Wickenheiser behind the net and checked her into the boards, a conspicuous show of machismo aimed at softening the blow of falling to the women, 6-1. Wickenheiser responded by putting Dane in a headlock. "I had a good laugh with Dion about it after the fact," she says. "He sort of apologized on [Dane's] behalf, and we left it at that."
The women's game has vastly improved over the span of Wickenheiser's career—"That's in part kudos to her, because everybody watches her and says, 'Look how good we can be,' " says MacLeod—and her array of achievements (gold medals, MVP awards, scoring records) has made her a target for peers as well. "Every time she steps onto the ice, people have her number," linemate Gillian Apps says. "They want to prove that she's not the best in the world."
Good luck. As long as she has skates on her feet, Wickenheiser will always seem a few steps ahead.