Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

Hayley Wickenheiser, whom many regard as the greatest-ever female ice hockey player, retired as an athlete in 2017 to pursue a medical career. But Canada’s four-time Olympic champion is still leading from the front - in sport and in life.

On March 17, this 41-year-old from Saskatchewan, who is a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Athletes’ Commission, spoke out against the organisation’s commitment to holding the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games this summer despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” Wickenheiser wrote on Twitter. “We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone in the next three months.”

She concluded: "To say for certain they will go ahead is an injustice to the athletes training and global population at large.

"We need to acknowledge the unknown."

It was a bold statement that made Wickenheiser far from popular with the IOC’s top brass. But as she has told insidethegames, her comments were prompted by her experiences working as a junior doctor in medical emergency rooms in Toronto hospitals, where the number of severely ill COVID-19 patients was rising steadily.

Within a week of Wickenheiser’s request, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers - having come under increasing worldwide pressure - announced that the Games would be postponed until the summer of 2021.

"Up until two weeks ago I was working my rotations in emergency medicine," said Wickenheiser, who is studying at the University of Calgary’s medical school. "So I was on the frontline with hospitals all across Toronto as a medical trainee. I am in my final year so we are not allowed to see COVID patients directly, but I saw many COVID patients coming through the door whom my attending physicians had to treat.

"I saw minor presentations right up to intubations for COVID patients. I was seeing that the pandemic was slowly coming here to Canada. And then I started to see it ramp, and I started to see the shift of physicians going from, 'Well this may not be too bad,' to preparing for a full-blown overload and the stress that created.

"So basically, from the lens I was looking through, it was hard to come home and then see the headlines of the IOC saying the Games were going to go ahead. I talked to over 15 doctor friends and asked them if they thought July 2020 was a possibility. Not one of them said yes. They said: ‘That’s crazy. There’s no chance.’

"And it was after seeing a young, 40-something-year-old airline pilot get intubated, an otherwise healthy person, he went very quickly into low oxygen, he was in big trouble and I was like: 'This is crazy, there’s no chance the Games could happen in July'.

"So that’s why I said what I said."

Hayley Wickenheiser was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year, five years after being elected to the IOC Athletes' Commission ©Getty Images
Hayley Wickenheiser was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year, five years after being elected to the IOC Athletes' Commission ©Getty Images

Wickenheiser, who was elected to eight years’ membership of the IOC Athletes’ Commission at the 2014 Sochi Games - on the same day that she collected her fourth Olympic gold - was not surprised to find a swift censure of her Twitter statement from the IOC.

"I got a message about 24 hours later which stated ‘what a pity’ it was that I spoke out without asking the IOC first," she said.

"That’s how it often works. They like to try to contain the message and have one message, but I don’t think a democratically elected institution like the IOC should be censoring its members, especially in times like this.

"I understand why you want to be united and have a public voice to not have everybody speaking and I respect that. But in this particular situation they disagreed with my stance anyway. So it wasn’t going to change anything had I spoken to them. They were going to keep carrying forward with their message.

"My message back to them was that we could agree to disagree, but I thought they would be on the wrong side of history on this one. Because I’m looking at everything. I’m on the frontline in a medical emergency room - and I’m an athlete. So I knew what I was seeing, you know…"

The belated decision to postpone the Games, Wickenheiser feels, was a necessary lifting of pressure for elite athletes facing the cancellation of qualifying competitions and the closure of training venues.

"Being an athlete myself, if I was in a situation training for the Games, I would be trying to do everything humanly possible to keep training if the Games were going to happen," she said. "And I’d probably put myself in situations and try to create a training environment that shouldn’t be there. Just because that’s what athletes will try to do.

"So I feel like this takes the burden off them, to feel like they have to do that. It allows them to know they have time to get ready."

But she accepts there is a possibility that the Games may not be safely held even by the summer of 2021 - something which the Tokyo 2020 chief executive Toshirō Mutō himself acknowledged on Friday when he said: "I don’t think anyone would be able to say if it is going to be possible to get it under control by next July or not.

"We’re certainly are not in a position to give you a clear answer.

"We have made the decision to postpone the Games by one year. So this means that all we can do is work hard to prepare for the Games.

"We sincerely hope that come next year mankind will manage to overcome the coronavirus crisis."

Toshirō Mutō, chief executive of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, has acknowledged that there cannot be certainly over staging the Games even though they have been postponed to the summer of 2021 ©Getty Images
Toshirō Mutō, chief executive of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, has acknowledged that there cannot be certainly over staging the Games even though they have been postponed to the summer of 2021 ©Getty Images

Wickenheiser commented: "The truth is that nobody knows. There’s not a person in the world that knows. I think we have to trust science and the models that are predicting the curve. Based on other pandemics, people have a general idea. We know that there will be a second wave.

"The question will be that if we flatten the curve enough early on, when there is a second wave the system doesn’t get overwhelmed and we are able to be resuming our regular lives and the system is able to handle it. I think that is more of the concern.

"Can we predict the Games can happen in a year if there’s another major outbreak? We can’t. But I do think it’s a reasonable time-frame, given history, to be able to plan and move forward.

"So there’s not much more I think the IOC could do. And I agree with not cancelling the Games, I think nobody wants that, that’s not good."

In the meantime, Wickenheiser has been leading from the front in yet another area - along with her friend Ryan Reynolds, the Canadian-American film actor and producer, she has been spearheading an appeal to collect and transport personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline emergency medical workers across Canada.

Working in partnership with a group of volunteers under the banner of Conquer COVID-19, and with input from numerous local and national businesses, Wickenheiser and Reynolds have set up a regular opportunity for the public to donate equipment, or cash, in a safe and socially-distanced location in Toronto.

The initiative got off to a flying start yesterday, and, according to Wickenheiser, it will continue to run every Saturday in the same spot for as long as supplies are needed.

Among those dropping by was the Ontario Premier, Doug Ford, who was full of praise for the efforts of the volunteers and the response of the public.

Speaking ahead of the event, Wickenheiser said: "Saturday is our first PPE drive where people will drive up in their cars and drop the items that they have. And we - that’s a group of medical students and volunteers - will begin going through the spreadsheet of asks that have come off the website, with the help of companies like Volvo that are going to take drivers and actually go and drop the stuff off at various locations throughout Ontario and Quebec where they are needed the most here in Canada.

"Right now I think we are definitely up to about 200,000 items. By the weekend I wouldn’t be surprised if it was getting into the millions.

"We are also opening up for cash donations for people to be able to give what they can so we can actually buy specialised supplies that it is hard for the general public to get their hands on.

"The response has been really amazing. Some people have a lot to give, and some people don’t. So we’ve got 200,000 masks coming up from Denver. And we had a response of one dollar from a young student in India.

"We’ve had 700 emails in just 24 hours from folks who have legitimate things they want to donate.

"Conquer COVID-19 is a group of medical students, business people, grassroots, just good humans that want to help. It’s amplified what we can do. Frontline medical workers can go on the website and say what they need. We’ve had over 70 requests from across Ontario so far.

"COVID has really blown up here, but it’s been a great source of social good in Canada."

Looking ahead to when the next Olympics and Paralympics can be held - whenever that may be - Wickenheiser agrees with the suggestion that the Games will be unique.

"Yes. I think they will be," she responded. "And that’s the whole point of the postponement. Why have an Olympic Games when so much of the world is in crisis and hurting and can’t celebrate?

"No Olympic Games until things have at least calmed down and people can celebrate and enjoy watching the Olympics.

"Because sport is what unites us. Sport is what distracts people from their everyday woes. I think if we had hosted in July, in the middle of a pandemic, who’s going to watch and who’s going to care? When you are just trying to survive and you can’t put food on the table?”

Wickenheiser’s sporting career is honour-laden.

She is the all-time leader in scoring at the Olympic Games and International Ice Hockey Federation Women's World Championship and has won more medals than any other women.

Her World Championship medal collection includes seven golds and six silvers, and her four Olympic golds and a silver are a record for a female player.

Hayley Wickenheiser had an unrivalled career as a female ice hockey player, earning four Olympic gold medals and one silver, as well as seven world golds and six silvers ©Getty Images
Hayley Wickenheiser had an unrivalled career as a female ice hockey player, earning four Olympic gold medals and one silver, as well as seven world golds and six silvers ©Getty Images

Wickenheiser was named Most Valuable Player at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympics, and no female ice hockey player has appeared at more Winter Olympics than her record of five.

She also made a softball appearance at the Sydney 2000 Summer Games, and played for several seasons in men’s semi-professional and professional ice hockey in Finland and Sweden.

In 2018, Wickenheiser was hired by the Toronto Maple Leafs as assistant director of player development.

In a questionnaire by Sportsnet which marked her retirement in January 2017, she was asked to reflect upon her varied career, and responded: "I think I’ve done a lot in my life and the game for me has been very diverse. The one thing I’d always wanted to do in my career is push myself out of my comfort zone - I think I’m really comfortable with being uncomfortable.

"So that’s why I played pro men’s hockey, that’s why I played softball and hockey at the same time, that’s why I’m not afraid to speak up - that’s just who I am. I’ve always had to prove myself from the time I was a little girl growing up playing hockey in Shaunavon."

For Wickenheiser, the challenges just keep coming. And she just keeps responding.

Asked if current circumstances are having an adverse impact on the final year of study for herself and her colleagues, she responded with customary frankness.

"It is very disruptive for us because our curriculum and rotations have essentially stopped, so we are going to lose probably four or five months, and then are going to have to condense our rotations to be able to go back and graduate on time.

"So we do lose out in our final year of a lot of good teaching and good opportunities, but I think in the end I’d rather graduate on time and get out there and start working than have to stay another year in school. It’s a long road as it is.

"But in the grand scheme of things, what I’m doing and what I’m learning through this PPE drive and just helping in other ways is also a medical education of a different kind.

"It’s a different kind of med school that we are in right now… it’s real life."