CALGARY — During the four months her foot didn’t touch the ground, Hayley Wickenheiser wondered if she’d walk normally again, let alone skate.
She was able to do both in time to re-join the Canadian women’s hockey team for this week’s camp in Calgary.
Canada’s all-time leading scorer underwent season-ending surgery in Toronto on Feb. 18 to have a plate and eight screws inserted in her left foot.
She played in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, with a broken bone in that foot. Wickenheiser had a screw surgically implanted in it just over a year ago, but pain continued to dog her.
Of the slings and arrows Wickenheiser has played through in her two decades wearing the Maple Leaf, this one had the potential to end her career.
So when Wickenheiser’s surgeon told her she couldn’t put weight on her foot for four months, she obeyed.
“It was a pretty serious injury to the point where they said if you put any weight on it you could risk long-term damage,” Wickenheiser said Tuesday at WinSport’s Markin MacPhail Centre.
“This is the most serious injury I’ve ever had in my career — a lot of dark days wondering if I’d ever walk normally again. I did everything the surgeon said.”
In the weeks following surgery, Wickenheiser did one-legged windsprints using a scooter and wrapped her cast in a garbage bag so she could swim laps.
“I had to be very creative in my training and my rehab, but I think I made really good progress in the span of six months to be back here,” she said.
Wickenheiser started skating in July, but she’s held off on running and jumping in dryland training.
“The bone is now fully healed,” she said. “If I was a sprinter or a track athlete I wouldn’t be back at this point, but because it’s hockey I can get away with that lateral push and it doesn’t seem to bother me.”
Jayna Hefford’s retirement last week at age 38 makes Wickenheiser, 37, the elder stateswoman on the national women’s team.
Of the 47 women invited to training camp, only Wickenheiser and goaltender Charline Labonte are in their 30s.
Wickenheiser and Hefford are the only two Canadian women to have played in all five Olympic women’s hockey tournaments. They won gold in four of them.
Wickenheiser also played softball for Canada in the 2000 Summer Olympics. Her foot responding the way it has, she was contemplating a seventh Olympic appearance in the 2018 Winter Games.
“I’d like to play through 2018,” Wickenheiser said. “Today, I don’t see any reason why I can’t. Physically I’m fitter than I’ve ever been really, considering my foot and the way I was able to come back and feel pretty healthy and good on the ice.”
She intends to play a full season with the Calgary Inferno of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, as well as represent Canada again at November’s Four Nations Cup and the 2016 women’s world championship in Kamloops, B.C.
The five-foot-10, 162-pound forward from Shaunavon, Sask., leads Canada all-time in goals (168), assists (207), games played (270) and penalty minutes (312).
She was captain of the Canadian team that won Olympic gold in 2010 and assistant captain in 2014 in Sochi, but she’s now faced with carving a new role for herself.
Hockey Canada is grooming players such as Marie-Philip Poulin, Rebecca Johnston, Natalie Spooner, Haley Irwin, Lauriane Rougeau and Laura Fortino to be Canada’s captains and assistant captains. Where does that leave one of the most decorated women in hockey?
Women’s team general manager Melody Davidson, who coached Wickenheiser in both the 2006 and 2010 Olympics, says making sure Wickenheiser’s foot is healthy is the first hurdle upon her return.
“Then it’s what does she want her role to be, where does she fit it, where do we see her? We’ve only had her at one camp since Sochi,” Davidson said.
“You can’t teach her compete level, her intensity and her willingness to do whatever it takes to win a hockey game and be successful. There’s a lot of learnings there for the younger players to observe and see. A lot of them have never played with her or never even been to a camp with her.”
Wickenheiser accepts the leadership torch has been passed to the 20-somethings.
“I’ve been around for a long time, played on the team for a long time,” she said. “My voice has been around for a long time, so I think it’s nice to have a fresh, new look going forward.
“Others have to step up and carry some of that load now and that’s a nice thing. I still do the same things I’ve always done and led by example, play hard and train hard and all those things.”
The Canadian women play a series of exhibition games against Alberta Midget Hockey League teams starting Thursday. Their camp concludes Sunday.
Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press