By Frank Pingue
(Reuters) - Canadian Hayley Wickenheiser has been at the forefront of women's ice hockey for nearly 20 years and is one of the sport's most decorated players, yet the aspiring doctor feels she can still improve.
The 35-year-old veteran of four Olympic Games, whose career accomplishments include three Olympic and seven world championship gold medals, stays invigorated with an ever-changing workout regimen and a genuine love for the game.
"I just really love to play the game and I always think that I can get better and develop into a better player so it kind of keeps me motivated," Wickenheiser told Reuters during a phone interview from Calgary, Alberta.
"I can probably do another (Olympic) cycle but at this point there is lots to figure out. I probably will make a decision like that after the Sochi Games are over and just see where I am from a physical standpoint and also from a life standpoint."
Wickenheiser, who has been on Canada's national team since she was 15, has a kinesiology degree and wants to attend medical school, something that will factor into her decision on whether to keep playing beyond the February 7-23 Sochi Olympics.
As Canada's all-time leading scorer, her eventual retirement will mark the end of an era for a team that has reached the gold-medal game of every Olympics since its debut on the Games program in 1998.
But in Russia, Wickenheiser and her peers will be under the microscope as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) looks to see if the wide gap that remains between powerhouses Canada and the United States and the rest of the world is closing.
Following the 2010 Olympics, former IOC president Jacques Rogge put women's hockey on notice when he said "we cannot continue without improvement."
Some progress has clearly been made, most recently Finland's upset of the United States in last November's Four Nations Cup, an event the Americans had finished first or second in every appearance since its debut in 1996.
But the Four Nations Cup does not garner anywhere near the attention of the Olympics, where severely lopsided scores hurt the game's reputation and leave many to dismiss the Games as nothing more than a two-horse race between the U.S. and their neighbors.
"Women's hockey definitely gets painted with that brush whether it's fair or not," said Wickenheiser. "We do see that same domination in other sports, like tennis and wrestling.
RAISE THE BAR
"It's something that we will have to continually fight... the bar has to be raised for the game and continually has to be and that's OK, everybody should be pushing for that because it makes the game better.
Wrestling lost its Olympic spot last February as the IOC looked to refresh its program but was voted back in for the 2020 Olympic Games seven months later.
Many experts feel women's ice hockey could become the next target of the IOC, which will want proof that other nations are investing resources and demonstrating improvement.
Wickenheiser is no stranger to playing in a sport that is dogged by a lack of global competition having been named to the Canadian softball team for the 2000 Summer Olympics. The sport has since been removed from the program and fell short in a joint bid with baseball last year to be reinstated.
For the good of the game, Wickenheiser suggests centralized training, a process practiced by Canada and the U.S. that sees players leave behind school, jobs and club teams for several months of preparation.
Wickenheiser, who feels Finland, Sweden and Russia have the best shot at disrupting a Canada-U.S. final in Sochi, is not worried about women's hockey losing its spot on the Olympic program but does recognize the need for change.
"I forsee women's hockey as here to stay in the Olympics for a long time," she said. "But at the same time... everybody has to be on their toes and it's up to federations and countries to continue to raise the bar."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; editing by Justin Palmer)