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Women's hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser named Canadian flag-bearer for Sochi

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OTTAWA - Hayley Wickenheiser doesn't put much stock in the flag-bearer's curse.

The women's hockey star, who will carry the Maple Leaf into the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, says the idea that she and her teammates could be under any more pressure is absurd.

After all, they play a sport that many in Canada consider religion. So any sort of cosmic jinx pales in comparison to the weight of an entire country's expectations for the women's team to win a fourth straight gold medal in Sochi.

"I think there's just too much emphasis to put on that," Wickenheiser said Thursday via conference call from Austria. "The pressure that we feel is the pressure that always comes with playing hockey as a Canadian hockey player, whether you're male or female.

"The country expects a gold medal. Whether I carry the flag or not, I'm pretty sure our team doesn't feel any extra added incentive that there's more pressure to perform, because we already feel that already."

Not all athletes see it that way. Diver Alexandre Despatie felt it would be a distraction and said he'd decline any offer to carry the flag at the 2012 London Games.

Kayaker Adam van Koeverden carried the flag at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and finished a disappointing eighth in the 1,000 metres — although he did win a silver medal in the 500.

Moguls skier Jean-Luc Brassard blamed his disappointing performance at the 1998 Nagano Olympics on being the flag-bearer a day earlier.

Wickenheiser and her teammates hope the same thing doesn't happen to them. Hockey Canada says the women will march in the Feb. 7 opening ceremonies despite playing their first game the following night versus Switzerland.

Brassard, the assistant chef de mission for the Sochi team, was on the panel that selected Wickenheiser along with chef de mission Steve Podborski, assistant chef France St. Louis and one athlete representative. Hockey Canada nominated her for the honour.

"Throughout her successful career, this Canadian athlete has demonstrated true Canadian grit, patriotism and sportsmanship," said Podborski, adding that Wickenheiser will lead the Canadian team with "the utmost pride and class."

Wickenheiser is embracing the opportunity to put her sport centre stage.

"What I think it does is it shines a very positive light on the sport of women's hockey and just on our sport in general for the world to see," said the 35-year-old forward. "That's a great responsibility and expectation that every nation in the world has to carry in and I think should really embrace."

The Shaunavon, Sask., native, who is at a pre-Olympic camp in Austria and wasn't able to attend the formal announcement Thursday on Parliament Hill, will be making her fifth Winter Olympic appearance. But for the first time since 2006, she won't be Canada's captain. Caroline Ouellette has been handed that job, while Wickenheiser will be an alternate.

But she remains Canada's biggest women's hockey star and a pioneer of the game. She and teammate Jayna Hefford will be the only players in the 2014 women's hockey tournament who have played in every Olympic Games since female hockey made its debut in 1998.

Her stewardship extends beyond hockey as a spokesperson for Right To Play, Clean Air Champions, KidsSport, Spread The Net, Plan Canada's Because I Am A Girl and Classroom Champions.

Wickenheiser read the athletes' oath in the opening ceremonies at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver and she is running for election to the International Olympic Committee's athletes' commission in Sochi.

Veteran speedskater Clara Hughes carried the flag at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics while women's hockey player Danielle Goyette was the flag-bearer at the 2006 Games in Turin.

"I remember we were joking, like 'Don't trip and fall when you come in,'" Wickenheiser said of her conversation with Goyette before the opening ceremonies eight years ago. "That's sort of the same thing we were talking about today. Geez, I'd better watch some YouTube videos and figure out how the athletes have done this before."

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