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.
WINDS OF CHANGE
“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.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
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.