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Hayley Wickenheiser won't stop working to grow women's hockey

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Hayley Wickenheiser has been a trailblazer for women's hockey, and there's more work to be done.

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By virtue of participating in six Olympic Games (one of those for softball), winning four Olympic gold medals, capturing six World Championships, and becoming the first woman to play professional hockey as a forward, Hayley Wickenheiser has already done wonders for the growth of women's hockey.

As one of the longest-lasting faces of hockey -- male or female -- over the last two decades, Hayley Wickenheiser has already done wonders for the growth of women´s hockey. A six-time Olympian who has won four Olympic gold medals and six World Championships, she was also first woman to to play professional hockey as a forward.

When Wickenheiser made her debut with the newly-formed Canadian national women's team in the 90s, only roughly 10,000 girls played hockey in Canada. Today, more than 100,000 young girls play the sport across the country -- girl's hockey and girl's soccer are the fastest growing sports in North America. Her 2011 induction into the Order of Canada "for her achievements as an athlete and for her contributions to the growth of women’s hockey" speaks to her impact.

But there is still more work to do.

That's why Wickenheiser has partnered with Canadian Tire's Jumpstart Charities, a national program that helps kids aged four to 18 in disadvantaged families, afford the costs associated with registration, equipment, and transportation in hockey. In the last 10 years, Jumpstart has assisted more than one millions kids across Canada to play sports.

Jumpstart's four Toronto chapters have disbursed $7.2 million to over 75,000 kids participating in sports. Last year, the charity distributed more than $20 million to Canadian families. June is Canadian Tire Jumpstart Month, where customers are asked to show their support by donating at their local store.

Wickenheiser's passion for helping to grow the game started with her parents -- both teachers who also coached in her small community of Shaunavon, Sask., as a kid.

"Their motto was 'we don’t care what you do, just do something and be active and pick a sport'," she said in a phone interview on Wednesday. "It was certainly part of the fabric from when I was a kid and I’ve certainly grown up knowing that and have passed it on to my friends and I think that’s the power of play and the power of being active and healthy and passing it to generations."

But picking a sport and being able to afford a sport are two different things.

"In the past it was 'I can’t afford to put my son in hockey' but now it’s 'I can’t afford to put my daughter in hockey'," Wickenheiser said, adding that people often reach out to her for help or guidance. Many people don't know that beyond donating, Jumpstart is also there for you to receive, according to Wickenheiser.

As girls' hockey has grown to become more competitive, the costs have also risen. Now, more than ever, Wickenhesier fears the equipment is increasingly expensive as kids grow and constantly need new skates. Travel is becoming more frequent and costly, and tournaments aren't cheap.

"It’s a few thousand dollars -- up to $10,000 -- per child each year for a kid to play at a competitive level of hockey, so that’s a big burden on a family if you’ve got more than one child," she said. "And it’s a deterrent for a lot of kids. For us in hockey, if we want to continue growing the game and having kids in hockey then we’ve got to keep trying to make it affordable and provide opportunities."

And Wickenheiser is a firm believer that those opportunities don't always have to be with high-end programs. Sometimes, it's all about entry into the sport.

"Our most evolved programs don’t have to be expensive but have to provide our kids with the best opportunity to develop and that doesn’t always have to be in a structured environment," she said. "In hockey we like to have practices and structured games and have our kids in a structured environment but I think getting out to rinks more where it’s a drop-in session and you pay a toonie or $5 and go out and play shinny. That can be just as effective."

Because Canada is such a diverse country, Wickenheiser believes that these opportunities need to be made available to everyone.

"It’s about entry and getting people into the game. We have now new Canadian people who come from different parts of the world and hockey wasn’t a part of their culture," Wickenheiser said. "They come to Canada and they want to play but it’s also foreign to them and that’s another area that we have to keep open to in the game of hockey that it’s not just one type of people that play the game."

Once a player gains entry into the game, they need to be able to take advantage of resources that will help them develop. Wickenheiser believes there's a lack of access to good coaching in Canadian girls' hockey.

"Most of the time it’s a mom or a dad that have been around the game of hockey before," she said. "I’m a big believer that we need our best coaches coaching our youngest kids."

But still, she has seen positive progress. At the game's highest level in the CWHL and on the national under-18 and senior program, Wickenheiser has seen increasing depth. She believes the top players are as good today as they were 10-15 years ago, but there are more young stars -- "and that's a great thing for women's hockey."

Part of the reason the players are getting better is because they're starting young. But Wickenheiser worries that hockey is becoming too serious at all levels.

"Right now there’s a tendency to create hockey robots," she said. "We want to over-schedule our kids and over-program them and one of the beauties I like about Jumpstart is that it’s just about the beauty of playing and being involved in the sport and there’s something really pure and simple about that we need to never forget. Keep the game about the game."

Coaching is not for her, but when she retires, Wickenheiser wants to stay involved at an "admin level or sort of on a visionary level". Wickenheiser wants to use her experience from playing in countries like Sweden and Finland, where she saw the way they run their development systems, to grow and train young athletes in Canada.

She thinks the CWHL has helped to put top women's hockey players into the spotlight.

"I think it has been great because what happens is you have the Olympics and one year out of four everyone gets to know all the players but then where do they go afterwards, where do they play? [The CWHL] is a place where people can follow the players and it’s kind of like the NHL," she said. "It’s essential for the growth of women’s hockey and pro hockey and young girls wanting to aspire to better themselves."

If you know a kid that wants to play sports, but can’t afford to, call 1-844-YES-PLAY, or visit jumpstart.canadiantire.ca to apply.