Hayley Wickenheiser say motherhood saves her from "the disease of me."
Hockey could consume her life. There was a time when it did. The captain of the Canadian women's hockey team says her 12-year-old son Noah is the breeze that parts the fog she sometimes finds herself in.
"When you are an athlete, it's the 'disease of me' because you are so concerned about everything about yourself — your performance, what you eat, how much you're sleeping," Wickenheiser said Thursday. "It's always about yourself. Then you have a child and then it suddenly is not always about you.
"I think I'm actually a more patient person since I've become a mother. I've become more empathetic overall. I've learned to really enjoy my time at the rink and love what I do, but when I leave I really can leave it behind now better than I ever could."
Canada's all-time scoring leader adopted Noah, the son of her boyfriend at the time, when he was an infant. Wickenheiser and Tomas Pacina recently ended their relationship, but share custody of Noah.
"It's working out really well," Wickenheiser says. "Tomas is really involved with Noah's life. We manage together to make it all work, balance the schedules and responsibilities. It's great he's got both of us there to keep things going for him.
"It's not ideal, but you know what? I think we've got a pretty good situation."
Like any working mother, the 33-year-old from Shaunavon, Sask., sometimes has to choose between work and family. When the Canadian team went to Finland for a tournament last fall, Wickenheiser decided she needed to be home in Calgary when Noah started Grade 6.
"I'd felt I'd never turned down Hockey Canada in my 18 years of playing and never missed an event," she explains. "Going into Grade 6, it seemed like it was a really important moment that I really didn't want to miss even though it was one day or just a few days.
"His birthday is April 5 and I've only been physically with him four out of those 12 birthdays. It's those little things that add up over the years and I just didn't want to miss another important moment."
One of the enduring images from the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City is Wickenheiser holding Noah as a toddler in her arms after an emotional gold-medal win over the U.S.
He's joined his mom on the ice for several on-ice celebrations and the most recent was last month's world championship in Burlington, Vt.
After losing the gold-medal game to the Americans at three straight world championships, the Canadian women reclaimed the title with a 4-3 victory in overtime.
Noah, a competitive swimmer, has grown up not liking hockey much because he saw it as something that took his mom away for long stretches. Wickenheiser sees sharing those victorious moments as some payback for him.
"He's young and he's been around hockey since he was born so maybe he doesn't realize how exciting it is in those special moments," she explains. "I would hate for him to be 20 years old and say 'Mom, you never took me in the dressing room or on the ice.' I give him the opportunity and if he wants to take advantage of it, he can.
"I want him to be around that environment where he sees the other girls and grows up knowing women can be strong athletes and also that there's no set way to live your life."
More than ever, Wickenheiser appreciates the example set for her by her own mother Marilyn. When Wickenheiser was eight years old, she wanted to go to a hockey school in Swift Current, Sask., but was told it was boys-only.
"My mom stood up for me and tested them enough that they let me go to the hockey school, which was pretty cool," Wickenheiser recalls. "I was the first girl in hockey school and now there's all-girls hockey schools in Swift Current."
When Wickenheiser was 10, Marilyn moved to Regina for a year to finishing her education degree. Wickenheiser's father Tom manned the fort at home in Shaunavon.
Since winning Olympic gold in 2010, Wickenheiser has returned to university for a science degree and plays for the University of Calgary Dinos.
"It's funny now I'm doing the same thing years later, trying to finish my degree and going back to university," Wickenheiser says. "She demonstrated to me as a kid that it was OK to go after your dreams."
Wickenheiser spoke to The Canadian Press from Toronto. She's been chosen by Walmart Canada to help select the recipient for a Mom of the Year Award.
The winner receives $10,000 and another $100,000 for donation to a charity. Details of the campaign are at www.momoftheyear.ca.
Wickenheiser is part of a growing community of Canadian female athletes pursuing both sport and motherhood. Her Olympic teammate Becky Kellar had two children during her career on the national team and was actually pregnant with her first child while playing in a world championship.
Hurdler Priscilla Lopes-Schliep aims to compete at this summer's Olympic Games in London less than a year after giving birth to a daughter. Wickenheiser says she and Calgary heptathlete Jessica Zelinka, mother to young daughter Anika, talk about juggling sport and motherhood.
"Pick your spots and know what's important," sums up Wickenheiser. "That's the key."