excerpt from over the boards by Hayley Wickenheiser. Copyright © 2021 Hayley Wickenheiser. Published by Viking Canada/Penguin Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.
When I first arrived in Finland, my restlessness was constant and intense. I didn’t have many friends; I didn’t speak the language. I felt isolated and lonely as hell, like an outsider who didn’t belong. It took a few months to get comfortable and get to know the people, many of whom remain wonderful friends to this day.
My team ended up being a saving grace. That first season, one of our assistant coaches would come into my dressing room before the game: “Okay, Hayley, No. 11 and No. 67, they’re going to try to take you out today.” This gave me a chance to prepare for it. I was mentally aware of what was coming. I would look at the bench next door and keep my eyes on the players in question. When I was on shift with one of them, I always knew where they were on the ice.
Instead of the full cage we wear at women’s sports, I wore a visor. I never thought I’d miss my cage until I took the Easton Synergy stick across the bridge of my nose in my first game with Salamat. The crack was so loud that even the fans heard it. My nose was bleeding like it was a fountain. When I reached the bench people got scared. I grabbed the door with two hands and slammed it as hard as I could. I was driven for weeks in front of the media during every game and every practice, up to that very moment. It just plain sucked. I was incredibly uncomfortable with what I had chosen for that season, and that was literally a breaking point.
I grabbed my nose and moved it back into place. I decided to try my finish. “Some! I nodded, and sat down. I thought I said “Fuck it.”
One of my teammates, Immo — the tough guy on the team who became a close friend — handed me a towel, and I put it on my face. “Haley, this is Shame, she said. We both laughed – the “swear word” turned out to be “little baby.” Then I tugged my tears of frustration into the towel. I’m more than a broken nose to deal with all the other crap I was dealing with an injury. But I didn’t want people or media to see me crying.
For a week I had a pair of black eyes, and I still have a bump on the bridge of my nose – my souvenir from Finland. A few nights later I got my first goal, a backhand, in front of a 1,200 selling crowd at our home rink. I forgot all about my sore nose. I had reached one of my goals—the pursuit of which had put me out of my comfort zone in the first place—improving my game.
When we played with my opponent, Savonlinen Pallokerho, or SaPko, his head coach told reporters that he would bring a pair of hooligans to eliminate the daylight from me. That, I was fine. The thing that annoyed me was where SaPko replaced me before the game. Instead of opening the dressing room for me, he glued me to the cheerleaders of his team. His so subtle digging ignited a fire in me. We beat Savonlinen that night and I was voted player of the game in front of 9,000 fans. My reward was … a paper bag filled with raw fish. Surprisingly, the trophy was awarded to SaPko’s Player of the Game. My linemates were angry. He took the fish and threw it against the wall of the rink. Then they bought a bunch of beers and we spent the four-hour ride back to Kirkonummi drinking on the bus, my teammates cheering me on.
Always being a seeker can put you in some really uncomfortable position. But it is the best way to grow – and there will be bright moments too. patches of sunlight that are broken by heavy emotions What did I find myself just now? – Like my first goal for Salamat, or when my teammates patted me against SaPko. Those moments will keep you going through difficult times. There was another bright spot in that long year: Camilla’s five-year-old daughter Matilda Nilsson and rink-run couple Tony Nilsson in Kirkonummi. Matilda, who always wore a bright blue tuxedo over her long, white-blonde hair, was a small rink rat. His parents could never get him out of the snow.
Our coach Matthew didn’t seem to mind. He practiced from the bench, never to skate with us. When he blows the whistle, we’ll go to the board where he’ll explain the next drill. That too was a sign of Matilda. At the sound of Matty’s whistling, she jumped over the ice and ran for the net, practicing her shot at the suddenly empty net. When Matty blew the whistle to signal the start of the next exercise, Matilda stepped off the ice and sat beside him, watching us skate.
Matilda used to come to every home game – she was practically our mascot. When things got bad, I’d hear a shy knock on my dressing room door. I would quickly prepare myself and let him in. She would sit next to me. She didn’t speak much English and I didn’t speak any Finnish. But it didn’t matter. We used to speak the language of hockey. She’ll smile at me, and I’ll feel my pain go away. It was this brilliant, shining light in that very dark winter.
In the years since I left Finland, I have been close to the Nilsson family. He’s met Noah and me in Calgary, and I’m back in Finland to meet him. In 2020, soon after Matilda turned 23, she was named in the Finnish national women’s hockey team. That little girl who sat with me in some of my lonely moments so many years ago is now living out her hockey dream. I couldn’t be happier for him.