A revolutionary player

KATHY RUMLESKI -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:25 AM ET

She's been called the best female hockey player in the world.

Some may argue the point, but one thing is certain: history books will recognize Hayley Wickenheiser as a revolutionary in women's sport.

An elite athlete who has competed at both Summer and Winter Olympics, Wickenheiser continually pushes the boundaries of athletics.

The first woman to record a point and later score a goal in a men's pro hockey game and a two-time invitee to the Philadelphia Flyers' rookie camp, Wickenheiser's determination to refine her skills has come at a price, though.

She endured a painful separation from her young son and partner and incurred the wrath of some of her Canadian teammates who felt betrayed when she joined a Finnish men's pro league in 2003.

The national team's all-time points leader at 220, Wickenheiser says the Finnish experience was worth it and has prepared her to defend Canada's gold medal in women's hockey at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

"I'm at a point in my career where I think I'm consistently playing at a high level."

The Shaunavon, Sask., native began play with the national team at 15 and has won 18 international medals.

The highlight of her career is the Olympic gold she won at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games. Wickenheiser was named the MVP of the tournament and scored the tying goal in the Canadians' 3-2 victory over the U.S. in the final.

The win was particularly satisfying for Wickenheiser and her teammates since they lost the first Olympic gold medal to the U.S. in Nagano.

The two teams are expected to battle for gold in Turin. U.S. coach Ben Smith called the rivalry one of the greatest in Olympic team sports.

What will make it even more heated is that Canada will be looking to avenge the loss to the Americans at last season's world championship, says Wickenheiser, who also represented Canada at the 2000 Sydney Games in softball.

"We've got a motivated team. Every time we step on the ice, players feel we have something to prove. We are Canadian and Canadians expect gold medals and that's what we expect of ourselves."

Wickenheiser, who is featured in a children's book published this year called Born to Play, says defending the Olympic gold will be tougher than winning it four years ago.

"We're not the underdogs like we were in Salt Lake. The trick is . . . you go in and you want to be able to relax."

The Canadians, who easily beat the Swedes in three exhibition games last week, will face off two more times against the U.S. -- Dec. 30 and Jan. 1. -- before the Olympics.

Canadian head coach Mel Davidson, who called Wickenheiser a "master," has until late January to submit her Olympic roster.

MEDAL CHANCES:

Canada and the U.S. will undoubtedly meet in the gold-medal game. Canada has beaten the U.S. seven out of eight times this season.

Prediction: Gold

TEAM TO WATCH:

United States

The U.S. won the first gold in women's Olympic hockey in 1998, while Canada won in 2002. At last season's worlds, the U.S. was victorious. Longtime captain Cammi Granato and veteran Shelley Looney were cut from the team in August -- a good indication of its depth.


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