(Reuters) - Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada’s most decorated female ice hockey player and an outspoken critic of Russia’s anti-gay laws, was named on Thursday as her country’s flag-bearer for next month’s Sochi Winter Games.
A triple gold medallist and pioneer of her sport who has played professionaly in men’s leagues, Wickenheiser said she was honored to be chosen to represent her country.
“You don’t really think about carrying the flag in the Olympic Games when you are a kid growing up and having a dream to go to the Olympics,” she told reporters on a conference call on Thursday.
“For us in women’s hockey, the Olympics is our Stanley Cup. It’s what we play for every four years, it’s what we strive for, it is everything.”
Once named one of Sports Illustrated’s Top 25 Toughest Athletes in the World, Wickenheiser will be making her sixth Olympic appearance.
She has competed in ice hockey at the last four Winter Olympics - winning three gold medals and a silver - as well as competing in softball at the summer Olympics at Sydney in 2000.
“I personally do think the flag-bearer should represent those athletes that live most of their lives in this arena of amateur sport and elite sport outside of professional sport,” she said.
“I do think there is something pure about having those athletes who toil in the shadows of the pro spotlight doing it.”
The Canadian Olympic Committee, who made the announcement at Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, had a large number of worthy athletes to choose from for the honor.
Sidney Crosby, who scored the winning goal for the Canadian men’s ice hockey team in the gold medal match in Vancouver, had been gaining considerable support.
Freestyle moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, who captured Canada’s first gold medal in Vancouver, was also believed to be in the running along with downhiller Erik Guay, the country’s most successful alpine skier of all-time.
Long-track speedskater Clara Hughes carried the flag in the 2010 opening ceremony while figure skater Joannie Rochette, who took a bronze just days after the death of her mother, handled flag-bearer duties at the closing ceremony.
Wickenheiser is considered one of her sport’s trail blazers, having played with and against men in professional leagues in Finland and Sweden.
The 35-year-old forward became the first female hockey player to score a point in a men’s professional game while representing Kirkkonummen Salamat in the Finnish second division and has played division one men’s hockey in Sweden.
Tipped as a possible future International Olympic Committee member, Wickenheiser has never shied away from defending her sport or speaking out against Russia’s anti-gay legislation and right of athletes to compete at the Olympics no matter what their sexual orientation.
“I am a big believer that the Olympic Games should be about including everyone, treating everyone with respect,” she said.
“I am supportive of every athlete being able to compete regardless of your race, gender or orientation and I will carry that Canadian flag proudly believing I am representing all the athletes that feel that way as well.”
The opening ceremony in Sochi will take place on February 7 and will be broadcast a massive worldwide audience.
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Julian Linden