The Hockey Hall of Famer’s efforts to help collect and deliver personal protective equipment to front-line workers have earned her widespread praise from the likes of all-time leading NHL scorer Wayne Gretzky, actor Ryan Reynolds and Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
“I’ve heard the hero stuff, but this isn’t about me,” Wickenheiser said. “The real heroes are to me the people who are, to be perfectly blunt, in the middle of the [stuff] right now.”
The 41-year-old was working in the emergency room at several hospitals in Toronto as part of her final year of medical school when the pandemic hit. Seeing the effects of the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19, firsthand only made her want to help even more.
“The doctors, the nurses, they are incubating a foot away from a patient who has COVID,” she said. “When I go to my local grocery store and see the same women, young girls, working at the counter day after day, week after week, getting exposed to hundreds of people every day, well, the bravery that it takes to get up and do those tough things, those are the heroes to me.”
Gretzky said he believes Wickenheiser is one too.
“Her sole motivation is to make a difference, and she’s using her celebrity platform to do it,” Gretzky said.
To Gretzky’s point: Wickenheiser has been increasingly present in the public eye since early March. Her work and promotion for the Conquer COVID-19 initiative has helped raise more than $2 million for personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other health care workers. She also appears with retired astronaut Chris Hadfield and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, in a national ad from the federal government exhorting people to stay home and save lives.
Gretzky last week joined athletes from 14 professional sports leagues to pay tribute to health care workers by dedicating their jerseys to those who are helping their communities during the coronavirus pandemic. He chose Wickenheiser and put her name on the back of an Edmonton Oilers No. 99 jersey as part of the Real Heroes Project initiative.
“For people like her that get up in the morning and have to venture into sort of enemy territory and help people who are in the battle of their lives, well, that’s probably way more gratifying for her than winning a gold medal,” Gretzky said. “Sports is a high, sports are fun, but life is way more important.
“She’s the greatest women’s player ever. She was a hero before she became a doctor for so many kids. She gave people a sense of hope of having the same dream that she had as a kid. And now she’s obviously a hero to so many families who are battling whatever they’re battling whenever they walk into a hospital.”
Growing up in Shaunavon, Saskatchewan, Wickenheiser was a hockey nut and started playing on a boys team when she was 5.
Four years later, she discovered the second love of her life: medicine.
She was around 9 when a girl in her neighborhood was hit by a grocery delivery truck. Wickenheiser and her friends started visiting her in the hospital daily.
“Being in the hospital, the doctors, the nurses, the way they were, it really impacted me.” she said. “I liked it. That’s when it really hit me that it’s something I might want to do.
“Since I was a kid, I had a Harvard med school sweatshirt and an Edmonton Oilers jersey. Those are the two things I wore the most. That tells you what I wanted to do with my life, right?”
Wickenheiser joined the national team at age 15, the start of an impressive 23-year run. She was Canada’s all-time leading scorer in women’s hockey with 379 points (168 goals, 211 assists) when she retired in 2017 to pursue her dream of becoming an ER doctor.
After obtaining an undergraduate kinesiology degree and a master’s degree in science from the University of Calgary, Wickenheiser entered medical school in July of 2018 and was hired by the Maple Leafs the next month. When the forward was elected into the Hockey Hall of Fame a year later, she missed the congratulatory call from chairman Lanny McDonald because she was in the midst of a code blue simulation.
When coronavirus patients started arriving in the hospitals she was working in several months ago, she was not allowed to treat them because she was a student.
“I still wanted to help,” she said. “And when I couldn’t find an N95 mask that fit me one day, I thought we could be looking at a larger equipment issue here for the people that need them.”
On April 6, she made a request to the public on her Twitter account for masks, gloves and chemotherapy gowns. Reynolds, a Vancouver native and star of the “Deadpool” film series, amplified his friend’s message by retweeting it and offering autographs and other items in exchange for donations.
“Ryan blew this thing up for us,” Wickenheiser said. “We’ve been close ever since we were both inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame (in 2014). He’s awesome. Once he put that out to his 15 million followers, well, off we went.”
They soon teamed up with Conquer COVID-19, which unites Canadian physicians, business leaders and volunteers to get essential supplies to those in need. When the group held a collection drive at a Toronto storage unit five days after Wickenheiser’s tweet, Ford was among the volunteers helping to unload trucks.
“Talk about leadership. Hayley has shown leadership her whole life,” Ford said. “Once again she’s stepped up to the plate with an entire team … I want to thank Hayley from the bottom of my heart.”
A little more than a month after Wickenheiser’s tweet, Conquer COVID-19 has delivered personal protective equipment to 180 sites — including hospitals, community clinics, long-term care facilities, doctor’s offices, homes for people with special needs, and shelters — in 54 communities across five provinces. Toronto held four collection drives; Ottawa is hosting its third and final one this weekend.
Wickenheiser also reached out to her hockey connections to promote Conquer COVID-19 T-shirts. Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, his daughter Maggie, Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas and defenseman Morgan Rielly, and Calgary Flames captain Mark Giordano soon took to social media wearing them.
“Hayley is uniquely prepared to be a spokesperson like this because she brings a lot of credibility with her, not just in her career as a hockey player but in her second career in medicine,” Shanahan said. “She came up with a variety of ideas, one being selling T-shirts and getting her friends to use their social platforms to sell more T-shirts and have 100 percent of the money to help people get the [equipment] she needs.
“She’s always looking to help.”
Through the chaos of recent months, one plea for help tugged at Wickenheiser’s heart strings the hardest.
Kristen Beaton, a continuing care assistant, was one of 22 people killed in a mass shooting in Nova Scotia on April 18-19. When Wickenheiser saw Kristen’s widower, Nick, pushing in interviews to make sure his wife’s health care colleagues had proper equipment to protect them from COVID-19, she and Reynolds arranged to send personal protective equipment to front-line workers in the province as a tribute to the 33-year-old, who was the mother of a young son and expecting another child.
“The bravery of people like [Kristen],” she said. “Or of police officers who are out on the streets with no protection on. Look at Heidi [Stevenson, a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer], who was one of the Nova Scotia victims. She grabbed [the suspect], she slowed him down, he had to grab another car … that’s the stuff.
“Me? I just shot pucks for a long time.”
Reynolds told the Canadian Broadcast Corp. last month that Wickenheiser is much more than that.
“Hayley is a superhero,” he said.
When Wickenheiser asked Wendel Clark to help unload trucks at the Conquer COVID-19 storage unit during the collection drive in Toronto on April 18, he was more than eager to contribute.
“Who wouldn’t, especially when it’s Hayley doing the asking?” the former Maple Leafs captain said. “She was a leader during her playing days and she is again now.
“She was the spark plug. I was there more to help morale. It was funny. I remember unloading boxes of gloves and telling one of the volunteers ‘Hey, I didn’t drop the gloves this time’.”
It was another example of how the hockey world has rallied around Wickenheiser the past few months.
“It’s been incredible,” she said. “There’s Wendel. There’s (Maple Leafs assistant equipment manager) Bobby Hastings, who quietly collected and stored thousands of masks in his home because he wanted to help. My longtime training partner in Calgary, (former NHL forward) Martin Gelinas, he and the Calgary Flames dropped off equipment out there without anyone knowing. There’s the Leafs, who have been so supportive.
“You know, you can always count on hockey at a time like this because they get it. Hockey’s a team sport. And that’s what this Conquer COVID-19 thing is, a team sport.”
The hockey theme has been prevalent throughout the collection process.
Volunteers at the Toronto storage unit used hockey sticks as measuring tools to make sure they maintained the social distancing edict and stayed 6 feet apart. When a vehicle would pull in for drop-off, Wickenheiser yelled “Car!” just like she did when a passing motorist would interrupt her childhood street hockey games, prompting stick taps from her colleagues.
“Hailey’s always had a love of hockey and of medicine ever since I started training with her when I first got to Calgary (in 2002 as a player),” said Gelinas, a Flames assistant. “Now she’s using one to help the other.
“There’s a purity in her motivation. She’s always been driven to win, both on the ice and now, with this. She leads by example. If something needs to be delivered, she’ll jump behind the wheel to do it.”
Wickenheiser recalled making one of those deliveries a couple of weeks ago to Participation House, a care facility for people with disabilities in Markham, Ontario.
“One of the staff members there knocked on the window as I was standing there and made a heart sign with his fingers,” she said. “Those are the moments you don’t forget.
“I’m proud of the way Canadians have come together for this. Like hockey, you’re trying to beat an opponent here. Only here, there are no do-overs. That’s why we can’t stop.
“I might be the one in the spotlight, but there are thousands who deserve credit here. This is a team effort, and it’s been inspiring. If we have to battle a pandemic, there’s nowhere I’d want to do it more than in Canada.”