EDMONTON — It was a fitting tribute to one of the best players ever to wear a Canada hockey sweater.
Hayley Wickenheiser, who led Canada to four Winter Olympic gold medals and a silver during her distinguished career, was honoured during a special pre-game ceremony prior to puck drop between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers at Roger Place on Saturday.
The 38-year-old from Shaunavon, Sask., who announced her retirement from hockey on Friday, has lived in Calgary since she was 12 but has been a life-long Oilers fan, making the game between the two Alberta-based rivals the ideal place for a tribute in her eyes.
"I want to thank the Oilers organization for allowing me this moment to say goodbye to Canadians as a hockey player," she said. "I grew up idolizing the Oilers and it seems fitting that I would say goodbye here — at an Edmonton versus Calgary game — representing the two cities that have given so much to my career."
Among those joining Wickenheiser on the ice during the ceremony were Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky, former Team Canada coach Danielle Goyette, Wickenheiser's first hockey coach Wally Kozak, parents Tom and Marilyn, and son, Noah.
"This is so special," Gretzky said. "You have touched so many lives, including so many young girls who may one day go on to win gold medals of their own.
"You played with heart, desire, finesse, speed, skill, and the greatest player who ever lived, I think he would be happy if I called you the female Gordie Howe."
A video tribute included messages from Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, Wickenheiser's childhood hero Mark Messier and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who referred to her as a "leader, champion and a trailblazer."
Oiler captain Connor McDavid and Flames captain Mark Giordano each presented Wickenheiser with framed jerseys from their respective teams with her name stitched on the back.
Wickenheiser, who also played men's hockey in Europe during her 23-year career, was also joined on the ice by several young female hockey players, who she said she was glad to pass the torch to.
"To all the girls behind me, this is the beginning of your story," she said. "The only thing I can ask is that you leave the game in a better place than where you found it.
"To the fans, thank you for the support of the women's national team and the women's game. To everybody across Canada, thanks for cheering for us. It was the greatest honour of my life to play for Canada. I'll never forget it."
Named MVP of the 2002 and 2006 Olympic women's hockey tournaments, Wickenheiser recorded 379 career points for Canada — 168 goals and 211 assists in 276 games.
In addition to winning five medals for Canada in hockey, Wickenheiser also played for the Canadian softball team at the 2000 Summer Olympics.