Maple Leafs’ hiring of Wickenheiser is a step toward progress in the NHL

The following article has been written by Simon Vacca, August 23rd, 2018 on Fansided and can be found here.

On Thursday August 23, 2018 the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Hayley Wickenheiser had been hired as Assistant Director of Player Development — a sure sign of progress in one of contemporary sport’s more traditional leagues.

When the Toronto Maple Leafs announced that Kyle Dubas would serve as the 17th general manager in the club’s history back in May of this year, the hockey world heavily ruminated on the possibility that the organization’s President and Alternate Governor, Brendan Shanahan, had made a mistake about the direction in which the team was set to progress.

While few would trouble the claim that the 31-year-old had demonstrated exceptional talent at the administrative level for years on end, the notion that the “Shanaplan” had been disrupted by the departure of both Lou Lamoriello (former GM) and Mark Hunter (former assistant GM) was something of a speculative cloud that hovered over the esteemed franchise.

Then, on July 1, news broke that the Maple Leafs had signed John Tavares — arguably the most sought after free agent in the history of the sport — to a seven-year, $77 million deal.

The former captain of the New York Islanders was ecstatic about being afforded an opportunity to live out a childhood dream — to wear the blue and white, that is — while competing for a club that was widely regarded as a legitimate contender for Lord Stanley’s trophy. That the talented center was reported to have rejected an even higher paying offer from the San Jose Sharks sparked the figuring of a general consensus: Dubas’ first major test as GM was a home run — and one for the books, at that.

On Thursday, the Dubas-led Maple Leafs made yet another step toward ushering forth a culture of winning ways — the implications of which promise to act as a positive step toward ushering forth a more progressive agenda in the NHL.

It’s official: Hayley Wickenheiser has been hired as Assistant Director of Player Development.

A former member of the Canadian women’s national hockey team — a position that she held for 23 years, during which she earned one silver and four gold medals, and served as the club’s all-time leader in points (having tallied 168 goals and 211 assists in 276 games) — Wickenheiser shall join the ranks of a small, but increasingly prevalent network of women occupying full-time hockey ops roles for organizations in the NHL.

Others include Dawn Braid (skating coach, Arizona Coyotes), Rachel Doerrie (analyst, player information and video, New Jersey Devils), Sydney Bell (manager of hockey administration, Florida Panthers), Alexandra Mandrycky (hockey operations analyst, Minnesota Wild) and Kate Madigan (assistant, player information and video, New Jersey Devils). Noelle Needham has also been hired by the Maple Leafs as an amateur scout.

Speaking on a conference call alongside Wickenheiser, Dubas gestured to the importance of not only diversifying the Maple Leafs as an organization, but also implementing more progressive decisions on a wider basis across the hockey world:

Research shows that the more diverse your organization the better your decision-making, the better your operation, in general. I think that if you’re only hiring white males — and I’m saying that as a white male — you’re probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization (is going) and how it can think, and how it can evolve and develop. I don’t think we’ve gone out and said that we want to hire females only, males only — anything like that. We’re looking for the best candidates and we’re not pushing anybody aside. And I think sports, in general, are moving well in that direction. It’s been great to see. Basketball’s probably been by far the best with it; I know baseball as well. I just think that it’s going to make sports and how they operate that much better as we all progress and move along.

While there’s little doubt that the hiring of Wickenheiser promises to be another step toward advancing an NHL that is not exclusively dominated by the voice of the (often white) male, an overarching question looms larger than ever. When will a woman finally be afforded an opportunity to pilot a team in hockey’s most prominent league?

Katie Strang’s recent piece in The Athletic unpacks this question from a variety of angles. She writes that former captain of the Canadian women’s national hockey team — and gold medal recipient — Cassie Campbell is optimistic about the next “two to five years,” while Hockey Hall of Famer Danielle Goyette would be proud to “take the challenge” in the event that an NHL organization were to knock on her door.

Nevertheless, fragments of traditionalism continue to envelop hockey on a relatively wide scale. Social activism is often avoided, the spirit of social justice tends to remain internalized and coaching is almost exclusively North American in nature.

But if there is a constant that underlies shifts in the structural dynamic of contemporary sport, it is that of a quality of an increased willingness to entertain progressive charges when such matters reach the forefront of discussion and debate. As Brant “Senator” Feldman — a representative for numerous women’s hockey players — tells Strang, “It’s gonna happen in a non-traditional city with a progressive guy.”

Auston Matthews recently referred to Dubas as “forward-thinking and offensive-minded.” He’s also been tasked with a prospect that skeptics will be quick to render a byproduct of wishful thinking at its finest: bringing the Stanley Cup to Toronto after decades of disappointment.

The Maple Leafs’ hiring of Wickenheiser is a victory for hockey. And although the sport’s largest glass ceiling has not yet been shattered, the present moment is a very necessary stepping stone toward a more progressive NHL.

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