Photo Credit: Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

On Merit

There have been plenty of hires of people with questionable credentials by NHL teams over the years. As fans of the Edmonton Oilers will certainly testify, more than a few of those have been made right here – fill in the name and position at your leisure — in this NHL outpost.

I don’t consider the Toronto Maple Leafs hiring of Hayley Wickenheiser as their assistant director of player personnel this week as one of those. Given her qualifications and the position she’ll start in, I don’t understand why there’s any fuss about it. If anything, Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic gold-medalist with Team Canada, might be over-qualified for the position she has taken.

What consternation there is out there on social media is about the “she” part of the hire in hockey-ops – Wickenheiser will essentially be a skills development coach based in Calgary, which could put her on a track to become a bench coach or even a GM or assistant GM down the road. She’ll work with WHL players drafted by the Maple Leafs and do some work with the Toronto Marlies.

NHL teams have been hiring women for years, most often in media relations, analytics and as skating coaches — the Oilers employed Steffany Hanlon as a skating coach for years. Hires like this one, made by GM Kyle Dubas Thursday along with the hire of Noelle Needham as an amateur scout, aren’t as common. That, as more qualified women enter the coaching and managing ranks, will change. That, no matter what old-school thinkers say, is overdue.

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“I think the biggest reason I was intrigued about this role was (Dubas) was interested in me, not hiring a woman, but hiring someone who could do the job,” Wickenheiser said. “I feel pretty confident in my abilities to be in this role, and that I belong and can handle myself with anyone. It’s not just a job to do, but I have a role to take on to help the Leafs try to win.”

Wickenheiser, who took part in a development camp with the Maple Leafs this summer, is starting out in a junior position. She’ll work directly under Scott Pellerin and Stephane Robidas. She’s not being pushed to the front of the line ahead of more qualified people because she’s a woman. I don’t see any  “look at how forward-thinking we are” optics trumping merit here.

Her accomplishments at the highest levels of women’s hockey aside, Wickenheiser helped run practices for North Korean men’s and women’s teams leading up to the Pyeongchang Winter Games last February. Then, development camp with the Maple Leafs, where Dubas got a first-hand look at Wickenheiser in very much the same role she’s been hired for. She’ll be doing this job, it should be mentioned, while completing a degree in medicine.

“Research shows the more diverse your organization the better the decision-making, the better your operation in general,” Dubas said when announcing the hires. “If you just hire white males, and I say that as a white male, you’re probably leaving a lot on the table in terms of where your organization can go and how it evolves and develops. We’re looking for the best candidates. We’re not pushing anybody aside.”

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In the years I’ve observed the game, I’ve seen a lot of hires made for the wrong reasons. In some cases, people got jobs or were fast-tracked simply because they “played the game,” whether they had any clue about what they were being hired for or had any reasonable chance of growing into that position. Then, there’s the friends-hire-friends factor. It’s real. It happens all the time.

The flipside is that some people get held back for ridiculous reasons. Ken Hitchcock of the Kamloops Blazers, for example, was ready to be an NHL coach years before he got his chance as an assistant with the Philadelphia Flyers but he had to lose weight first. Nobody came right out and said that, but it was true. Not hiring somebody for an NHL hockey-ops job because they’re a woman falls into the same category for me.

I don’t know how successful Wickenheiser will be with the Maple Leafs, but I look forward to seeing what she can do with the opportunity she’s been given. On merit, she is worthy of getting this shot, and that’s all that should really matter.

Previously by Robin Brownlee

  • Nellzo

    I think it’s a great hire for several reasons. One of the biggest is her mind for the game and understanding of what it takes to play the game at a high level. Fantastic move by Dubas. I only wish the local club would be more diverse in its approach. At least the Flames also missed out on her.

    • Leichs

      Honestly tho, what could she teach the Oilers that Paul Coffey or Wayne Gretzky couldn’t? By “diverse in its approach” do you mean more women? Because we have multiple hall of famers in our organization right now doing the same thing.

      • OTOF2

        Are you saying Coffey and Gretzky are helping / coaching players? I have not seen it. They are just part of the Red Wine Summits. Get drunk and reminisce about the 80’s.

  • BrandieBear

    I more than think Wick is qualified for the role and it pains me to say I’m jealous of what Toronto has done. I think it’s a bold move that hopefully breaks down the barrier for a wider variety of coaches and hockey ops people.

    On a different note I really wish the oilers could have been the team that made this move. It would have helped them hire outside the old boys club while giving them a player who knows how to win and process the game. She has 4 Olympic and 7 World Championship Gold Medals. The woman knows how to win and what it takes. She is also Canada’s leading point getter in international women’s competition with over 370 points in 276 games. I think she would have, and will be, great at helping develope players and instilling many other quality attributes.

    • Leichs

      All this I’m jealous and i wish it was the Oilers talk zzzz. This is your opinion but I am personally glad the Oilers had nothing to do with this. I do not care about “breaking down barriers” and that stuff. The Oilers have enough players lurking around the organization as it is. What could she teach them that Paul Coffey or Gretzky couldn’t? I could list their olympic achievements but I don’t even need to and they did it against NHLers and hall of famers.

      • OTOF2

        It looks like these hall of famers did a great job of flushing this organization down the toilet. They have earned this (once proud) team the status as the biggest joke in all of pro sports.

  • JayTee

    Happy for her. Def should be more hirings for woman. Hate that she’s with the Laffs though. Oilers shoulda jumped at the opportunity to bring her in but Oilers Oiler’d themselves

    • Hayley would’ve have been a longshot, at best, even in her prime to make the Oilers and play in the NHL in any era. Her playing experience in Europe with Finland and Sweden was in divisions I and II, not the Elite Divisions.

    • Dan 1919

      I tend to agree with you Bob, I feel more sorry for these woman or people in a minority position when everyone professes their progressiveness towards them in attempts at a “welcoming gesture.”
      If I was a minority engineer with an advanced skillset and started a new job, the last thing I’d want is to come in and everyone say to me… “Just for the record, I know you’re here because you know what you’re doing, not because your African descent or you’re a woman.”

      Haley got an assistant director job because she’s been in and around pro hockey since before dirt existed. She will be promoted or fired based on her performance. Really not much of story here that I see other than forcing the whole, “Woman got a job” thing.

      • Hayley got the job because she’s qualified. Not much of a story? Forcing the “woman got a job thing?” This hiring, of an assistant director of player development, got more ink than any other similar hiring because she’s a woman. When that’s not the case, when it’s not so noteworthy, that’s when true diversity will have arrived.

        • Dan 1919

          Yep, my thoughts exactly, I think those pushing this as news from the social victory side of things are doing more harm than good, promoting an elementary level of standards for woman.
          Haley got a job because of her hard work and skill, that should be boring news. To imply that this is any more news than that means to me that there’s additional baggage that went along with this hiring, doing an injustice to her accomplishments.

    • Spydyr

      You do understand midget AAA teams regularly beat the Canadian women’s team. Stating that she could have made the Oiler speaks volumes to your lack of hockey knowledge.

  • AlexTheOilersFanSince2006

    I dislike this hire ONLY because it gives yet another excuse for Leafs Nation to open their self-aggrandizing mouths. Otherwise Hayley is an ambassador of the game and I wish her the best in her new position.

  • Jordan McNugent-Hallkins

    Remember when they retired her jersey, and Roger’s Place booed Trudeau’s portion of the video so loud they had to cut the audio in the arena? Pepperidge Farms remembers…