As a player, Jayna Hefford, 41, needs little introduction. A five-time Olympian (four gold medals, one silver) she retired in 2014 as Canada's second-leading all-time scorer in international competition, trailing only Hayley Wickenheiser. Across three professional leagues, Hefford scored 439 goals in 418 games; in 2016, the Canadian Women's Hockey League determined it would name its Most Outstanding Player Award in her honor.
In November, Hefford became the sixth woman to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Now Hefford is looking to leave her imprint as a hockey executive. In August, she became interim CWHL commissioner, a gig she could take on full time. Hefford has big aspirations to grow the game, and knows the key is likely forming one league. In an interview with ESPN on Ice, Hefford discusses what the one league would ultimately look like (and what level of NHL involvement she'd like to see), impressions from the CWHL's presence in China, the challenges of promoting superstars and when we might see a female general manager or coach in the NHL.
ESPN: What has surprised you about this job?
Jayna Hefford: A lot has surprised me. I was excited about the opportunity to have an impact on the women's game at a high level. Hopefully, keeping the players in mind and knowing how I thought as a player and what I thought I wanted to happen, and where I feel like the game should go. But along with that comes the business side of the game and the political side of things, working through contract negotiations, there's all sorts of aspects to it. We're sending teams to China, and the implications of that, and just the travel that our teams encompass. So I'm learning, but I've got a lot of good people around me that are guiding me through.
Let's start big. Where do you want the game to go?
Hefford: Like most people in the game, we want to be a place where we have one league with all the best players. That's how I felt when I was a player, and it's how I still feel now. So we're working to get there, it's a complicated road, and trying to navigate the right way, and keeping in mind that when we do it, we want to make sure it's a success. So making sure we do it right is really important.
How important would it be when you create one league that the NHL gets involved?
Hefford: I believe that's a big part of it. I think that the NHL brand can take the game to a level that, without that, it will take a lot longer certainly. From a playing point of view, I know the players want to associate themselves with the league. They have so many resources. It's kind of a no-brainer that if we want to take it to that next level, [the NHL] has to be a part of it.
There are some people who don't like the idea of the NHL getting involved. Some of them are suspicious of the NHL's involvement. What do you say when you hear those fears or criticisms?
Hefford: I think it's a new age. I'm not really worried about gender or the politics or anything. It's just, how do we get the game to a better place? I think they have the resources to do that, they have the brand strength. I don't know what that looks like, whether it's their league, whether it's them being a part of the league, but I think they also will lean on the history of the game and the people that have been involved. I think it will be a collaborative effort to make sure we elevate the game.
Your league has a team in China. What have you learned about the imprint there and what has your relationship been like with the local community?
Hefford: It's been really interesting because last year, before I took the job, I knew it was part of the league, but I didn't necessarily understand the whole relationship. But I think it's pretty incredible what it's providing for hockey in China. I had a chance to be there in September, and the growth of the game there is amazing. It's exponential. Obviously the population, the density there, it's a huge market. We also feel as a league we're helping to grow the game globally. Their involvement with the CWHL is helping their national program, they're trying to get some North American players who have Chinese descent who can eventually be a part of their programs.
There are good intentions for growing the game globally on both sides. It's an opportunity for our players to travel to a place they probably wouldn't otherwise. The North American players that are over there now and the European players are treated very well. They're playing in an NHL-caliber arena over there with great resources associated with it. I think overall it's been a really great experience. It's a pretty cool thing. I don't know if there's any other league -- any sport, any gender -- that spans the distance that our league does, which I think is pretty cool.
What do you hear from players about logistics with the team based in China?
Hefford: It's challenging on some levels, because some of the players in our league work [other jobs]. So what happens with our teams, they go over for one week during the season, so it's a five-day work week, and they play three games when they're there. So it's a commitment on their level because they do have to take time off if they're working full-time jobs. But outside of that, it's an opportunity to play the game in a country maybe you wouldn't have a chance to go to otherwise. I think it's a unique experience for the players.
Considering most players do work, does that limit the players who might sign there?
Hefford: For them, they're there to be professional athletes. They get incorporated into the community. They do a lot of work outside of just playing the game within the league. They actually work for the KRS organization in growing the game. So they have a bigger job than just playing in the league. So from what I understand, it's been a great experience for them.
From a revenue perspective for the league, how vital has that partnership been?
Hefford: It's been a great partner and a financial aid for our league. It allows us to do more things, obviously. But I think also there's that opportunity to grow the game with the reach that they have there. We see our streamed games are reaching 300,000 people. Their attendance, they get 2,500 to 3,000 people a game to all their home games. As much as they're bringing in the revenue, there's also really great things that are coming out of that partnership in terms of growing the game.
At the NHL All-Star Game, commissioner Gary Bettman talked a bit about the women's game and the potential of one league. What kind of conversations have you had with the NHL when it comes to that issue? Is it an ongoing dialogue? Has it not really happened yet until both leagues come to the table?
Hefford: It's a combination of all those things. We've had ongoing conversations and the one thing I can say about Gary is, everything he's said publicly is what he's said privately. So that's where they stand. They don't really want to get involved as long as there are two leagues that exist. So it's a challenging situation. Especially being an athlete, that level of patience is really challenging. We want everything to happen faster. But I think their interest in the game is a positive thing. We see that as an end goal. And it's like, how do we close that gap and make it happen as soon as possible?
Hockey is the ultimate team sport, but a lot of times hockey players don't feel comfortable getting their own endorsement deals or promoting themselves as individuals. How have you found that to be important for growing the game and building off momentum from big events like the Olympics?
Hefford: I think it's huge for selling the game. One thing, when I came into this role, one of my priorities was to increase the visibility of the players [and] the awareness around the game. I believe that any sport, regardless of gender, is built around its superstars. If we could fault women's hockey in the past, I think it's that we haven't developed enough of those. It was always about one or two players, that's the only people that the fans knew.
I believe we have, just in the CWHL, six to eight legitimate superstars. We have there of them here [at NHL All-Star] weekend in [Renata] Fast and [Rebecca] Johnston, and you see what [Brianna] Decker did [demonstrating at the skills' competition] ... and then you add in the [Natalie] Spooners and the [Hilary] Knights and [Marie-Philip] Poulins and it's on and on. So how do we develop these real superstars? Because that's how you get the fans, I think. That's how they invest, they want to know their story. So we try to do a better job getting them out there, and their faces. A team sport is challenging, and so is hockey where their faces are covered. That's been a priority for us.
Have players been receptive?
Hefford: I think so. Early in the year we did a photo shoot to start off the season and we just did one around our all-star weekend. The players love that stuff. They had a good time, and we have lots of great content now where you see their faces and you see their personalities, and that's what's important for us.
We in the media often get criticized because when we talk about women's hockey, it's usually in the context of the merger, never about the actual leagues. So tell us about the league right now. What are you favorite storylines right now?
Hefford: A huge storyline for us this year was getting Hilary Knight to Montreal, getting Brianna Decker, Kacey Bellamy, Alex Rigsby. Those American players coming to our league was a huge boost for us. The storyline of, we just talked about, how many superstars we have in this league. You go and watch the two top teams right now it would be Montreal and Calgary, and the number of Olympians on the ice is amazing. The China story is always a big story for us.
So we're coming off a really good all-star weekend where the players, I think, really loved that experience. And now we're getting pretty close to the end of the season, the run-up to the Clarkson Cup and the championship. So it's an exciting time of year for us and I think the season is going to play out to be pretty exciting for the fans.
What's it like being a Hall of Famer?
Hefford: I don't know if it's really settled in. When you first get the call, it's so surreal. Obviously just the excitement of sharing that with people closest to you, and then reflecting back on all the people who played a part in your career is a big part of it. That's been nice to be able to kind of thank those people and appreciate them. Then you get the Hall of Fame weekend, and you can't believe it's there. It's this weekend that's jam-packed with fun, cool things that your friends and family are all a part of. I was excited to have my kids -- they don't really get what's going on -- but I think through that weekend they started to understand a little bit. Even just the idea of them ... we got to ride a limo to the induction and walked on the red carpet. So those are things they won't forget, which is pretty special.
And now, one of the things from that weekend that I realized is, it's this exclusive club, but once you're in it, you never get out. People are instantly your best friends. So you come here [to San Jose, California] and I saw Willie O'Ree this morning down there and we got to reminisce on the weekend, and I got a chance to see Gary [Bettman] earlier. So those relationships are moments that all of us will remember forever, and that's pretty neat.
Did you have any starstruck moments?
Hefford: One moment that was pretty cool ... all the inductees get to have their own parties on the weekend, and that Saturday night I had my party with friends and family and teammates and people that are part of my career. Lanny McDonald came in with the Stanley Cup, and that was something that I had no idea was happening. Then everybody at my party was like, 'Oh my God, the Stanley Cup is here.' Sometimes you think it's not a big deal until it actually happens then you see the impact it has on people. Those are memories I'll always remember.
A woman NHL GM. When is it happening?
Hefford: I think there's some really intelligent -- like hockey IQ -- women, and obviously strong businesswomen. So could it happen now? Yes. Will it happen soon? I hope. I wish I could give you a timeline. I think that's going to be an incredible moment for women, and for hockey. Whoever has the courage to do it first is going to reap a lot of rewards out of it.
I think on the coaching side, again, I think there are a lot of women who could step in now and do that and hopefully we'll see it sooner than later.