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Sochi Games put Hayley Wickenheiser in the spotlight for likely the final time as an Olympian

SOCHI, Russia — Hayley Wickenheiser has lost the captaincy of the women’s hockey team at the same time she has been named the flag-bearer for Team Canada. She says she hasn’t decided whether Sochi will be her final Olympics, but her coach makes it clear this is it at the same time he tries to praise her.

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Canada's alternate captain and flag bearer Hayley Wickenheiser practice on the ice in Sochi. (Reuters)

How much does she have left?

“I think she’s got enough for a couple weeks here,” said Kevin Dineen on Wednesday. “I do. I really believe that right now she’s prepared herself. I mean, that is one impressive athlete. She has an incredible future in front of her. I don’t know if it’s on the ice, but she’s got the juice. She’s ready. She’s really highly motivated.”

This has got to be bittersweet for Wickenheiser, even if she’s saying next to nothing about her dishonor and all the right things about her honour.

Her story has been a subplot in the soap opera of the Canadian women’s hockey team – a power clash, a coach’s shocking resignation, four straight losses to the archrival Americans. There are lots of questions and few answers. We’re left to read between the lines.

When she carries the flag at the opening ceremony Friday night, the team will be behind her. Her teammates will march even though their first game is the next day. But what then? Can she show she is still the player she once was – or at least still a valuable contributor? Can the Canadians regroup to defend their three straight gold medals?

Wickenheiser has represented her country for 20 years, since she joined the women’s hockey team at age 15. She has won three golds and a silver in the Winter Games, plus seven golds and five silvers at the world championships. She has been the MVP of both tournaments. She has participated in the Summer Games, too, playing softball in 2000 in Sydney.

A girl who grew up playing hockey with boys in Alberta, a woman who ended up playing professionally with men in Europe, she has been a trailblazer. She has been the face of the women’s game – and still is. She has earned this honour.

“She’s a fabulous choice for every reason we have,” said Adam van Koeverden, the kayaker who carried the flag for Canada in 2008 in Beijing. “She’s a champion. She’s a great role model. She’s an ambassador for Canadian sport – and a sport that, you know, kind of needs ambassadors a little bit because I think so many young women in Canada play hockey and aspire to be Hayley Wickenheiser.”

But over the past few months, Wickenheiser battled injuries, and the team struggled, and it got messy. Coach Dan Church cut two prominent players: Tessa Bonhomme and Jenelle Kohanchuk. He apparently clashed with general manager Melody Davidson, who had coached the team the previous two Olympic cycles, and he quit unexpectedly in December. Hockey Canada hired Dineen, who had been fired by the NHL’s Florida Panthers.

Dineen did not speak to Church. He wanted to come in with fresh eyes and evaluate for himself. After about a month, he made Caroline Ouellette, a three-time gold medalist herself, the captain for Sochi. That meant Wickenheiser would not wear the “C” at a major tournament for the first time since 2006. She would wear an “A” instead.

“She’s done a lot of heavy lifting for this organization for a lot of years, and my feeling was, with the dynamics of this team, that Caroline was an excellent choice,” Dineen said. “Not an easy decision. Not very fun for Hayley. But it was a decision I made.”

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Wickenheiser with son Noah after winning gold at the 2006 Torino Games. (AP)

At 35, had Wickenheiser simply slipped as a player and a leader? She has always been known for her shot, not her speed, and the game is faster than ever before. Did she not connect well enough with the younger players?

Asked to explain “the dynamics of this team,” Dineen declined to go into detail. He said Wickenheiser was still a “go-to player” on whom he would lean heavily, but he said he had a lot of excellent choices and added: “It’s always easy to just keep rolling along. I decided to make a change, and I think our group’s very accepting of it.”

Veteran Jayna Hefford said: “It really wasn’t a big deal.” She noted multiple players wore the “C” during the season. But it was a big deal to Wickenheiser. Asked how she took it, Dineen said: “Not great.” Dineen knew how Wickenheiser felt – he had once lost the captaincy of the Philadelphia Flyers to Eric Lindros, his roommate and friend – but he thought it was best, anyway. All of that seems telling. Again, we’re left to read between the lines.

Wickenheiser put on a brave face in public and around the team. She did not expect to be named the flag-bearer, because she had read the athletes’ oath at the opening ceremony in Vancouver and Danielle Goyette – then a player, now an assistant coach – had carried the flag in 2006 in Torino. Would Canada pick two women’s hockey players in three Winter Games?

But she was eating dinner at the kitchen table with her 13-year-old son, Noah, when she received a call from Steve Podborski, Canada’s chef de mission for Sochi. “He said, ‘If I asked you to carry the flag, what would you think?’ ” she said. “I said, ‘That would be very cool. Thank you.’ ” She received a flurry of phone calls, text messages and emails. One of the first texts came from the captain of the men’s hockey team, Sidney Crosby. “He said to wave it high and try not to trip,” she said.

The first time Wickenheiser marched into an Olympic stadium, she was 19. It was 1998 in Nagano. “I tried to take a picture every five feet, and I missed most of it,” she said. The last time was in Vancouver. She tried to look into the crowd and focus on the faces of her fellow Canadians. This time she will carry the flag and try to follow the advice of Goyette, van Koeverden and others who have done it before.

“It’s very fleeting,” van Koeverden said. “It lasts for, like, a second, and then you’re done. Take it in, and make sure you’re cognizant of the fact. Be in the moment, because it’s going to be gone.”

The march does not slow, let alone stop, not even for an athlete like Hayley Wickenheiser. Twenty years become a blur. Accomplishments live forever, but in the past. Whatever she’s got left, you’ve got to think she will give it the next two weeks.

“As you get older as an athlete, different things stand out to you in each Olympic Games,” she said. “For me, it’s about just taking in this experience and appreciating just the Olympic Games in itself, all the volunteers and the people that go behind the scenes to put the Games on and the little things you don’t notice when you’re in your first Games – what a big moving machine the Olympics really is.”

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