Seeing the future

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:56 AM ET

Who'd have known a 4-foot-11 Winnipegger of Chinese heritage would provide the inspiration for the top female hockey player in the world?

Certainly not Susie Yuen, who, 17 years ago, was pumping in goals at a Wayne Gretzky-like pace for Team Canada at the first world women's championship.

Sitting in her basement watching TV that day in 1990 was a 12-year-old, small-town Saskatchewan girl named Hayley Wickenheiser, who just assumed all girls played boys hockey.

That day, Wickenheiser saw the future. Her future. And her life was changed, forever.

"It was like the sky parted and the sun shone," Wickenheiser, in town to promote the '07 worlds, was saying yesterday. "All of a sudden your path in life is carved out before you if you do everything you're supposed to do to make it there."

Spark plug

And what she had to do was exactly what that tiny spark plug from Winnipeg was doing: work harder and have more passion than everybody else, no matter their size. Overcome anything in your way to reach the top. And don't let anyone tell you that you can't.

By the time she was 15, Wickenheiser played in her first world championship. Next month (Apr. 3-10), at the age of 28, she'll suit up in her seventh, but her first as Team Canada captain.

Watching will be Yuen, who in 1990 had no idea she was being a pioneer, and, up until yesterday, no clue she'd been an inspiration to the girl who would become the world's top player.

"Oh, my god. That was just, like, wow. I was shocked," Yuen said. "When we played it was just for fun. I kind of came out of nowhere. I don't know if I did anything. It's really an honour. I mean, she's the best female hockey player in the world. To hear her say that, it was a really special moment."

Women's hockey has come a long way since Yuen scored five goals in five games to help Canada win its first gold medal.

As Yuen said, back then you'd tell people you played hockey and they'd say, "You mean ringette."

Four years later it became an Olympic sport, which changed everything.

Countries that didn't know a skate from a work boot started women's programs.

But Canada continues to dominate, with the occasional challenge from the U.S.

Wickenheiser figures the lack of depth in the field is probably the main reason ticket sales got off to a sluggish start here.

She says there are four teams, including the Finns and Swedes, who have a realistic shot at gold, and plenty of games that will be competitive.

"You've got Sweden and Finland, who hate each other and are bitter rivals," Wickenheiser said. "There are some games that are going to be very close and entertaining, outside of Canada and the U.S. People just don't know that about the tournament. They see Canada blowing everybody out.

"But the game has come a long way where that probably won't be as much the case anymore."

When it gets right down to it, it'd be good for the game if Canada lost. Much like it was good for the game when the Swedes beat the Americans in the semifinal at the Turin Olympics last year.

It makes for big news in the countries that win, and gives others hope.

Don't tell that to Captain Canada, though.

"Not in Canada," Wickenheiser said. "For the big picture, when Canada loses it's probably always good for women's hockey, globally. But not in Canada. Not when I'm around. Nobody wants to be part of that team."

Besides, in another part of the country some 12-year-old might be sitting in her basement, watching women's hockey for the first time.

And what kind of example would that be setting?


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