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Jayna Hefford is a multiple Olympic gold medal winner and a force behind the new and wildly successful Professional Women’s Hockey League.

In her Testimonial Dinner award acceptance speech, Hefford talks about the power of sport and creating equitable opportunities for girls and boys in hockey.

I’ve had a few challenges in my career and I think speaking after Marc (Garneau) might be near the top of the list. Huge honour to get to meet you and hear you speak tonight.

This is a tremendous honour and certainly one that I didn’t expect. I’m incredibly humbled to be receiving an award like this with so many dynamic and impactful leaders, not only at this head table but across the room here tonight.

The Public Policy Forum, as you all know, works with governments, businesses, unions, academia, national governing organizations, and so many others on applied policy to make Canada better. When I first received the communication from Ed, I realized this was something a little outside the norm of events and awards that I would be a part of. But the more I learned about the PPF and what they do, I realized this is exactly what I have made a career of — teamwork, collaboration, Canadian pride, connections to community and so many other things. I truly value these qualities as much as everyone else in the room here tonight.

And these are all qualities that I learned through sport. I believe sport unites people unlike anything else. It brings communities together, creates a common bond. It brings joy, exhilaration, and it provides for many a sense of belonging.

I grew up as a young girl in Kingston who loved hockey. I’m not sure if it was innate or if it was learned, but the game has always been a part of who I am. There were very few girls at that time playing organized hockey and I was fortunate to have parents who never once tried to steer me away from this uncommon path. I didn’t appreciate how important that was to me and who I would become until much later in life.

My parents saw, and they felt, the passion that I had for hockey. I had dreams of winning the Stanley Cup. They fostered that dream. What more could we want for our children than for them to find something that they truly love and work hard for it? Although I know it was a somewhat unusual path, I never saw borders around what I could do or who I could be. And that’s simply because of the support I had from my family.

The demand for women sports is real. But we know there’s still a lot of work to do — and we’re committed to doing that work.

I had the absolute privilege to represent Canada at the Olympic Games five times, winning four Olympic gold medals and competing in 12 world championships along the way. I’m incredibly proud of those results, but they were just a small part of the journey. The things I learned along the way about staying present, about being adaptable, about accountability, about preparation and persistence, those are skills that define who I am today, and they lead me in my daily life, both in business and my family life. And I know there are sport organizations in the room, including the Canadian Olympic Committee over here, so, I thank you for the work that you continue to so passionately do because it’s important. I appreciate the value of sport even more now as I continue to navigate life after sport.

After I retired from hockey, I didn’t know where my path would lead but I knew I wanted to stay in sport. We still have a long way to go to create equitable opportunities for girls and women in hockey. I cared so deeply about the game, for the women who played it, and I always believed in the importance of the development through sport, both as an individual and as a community. After the closure of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, I spent four years leading the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association. This was some of the most important work I have done. Alongside the best players in the world, we advocated for our sport and for every young girl who wanted to play it. We believed we could do better. We pushed the envelope for better working conditions, more resources, improved infrastructure. And we invested in ourselves.

All this work led us to the creation of the Professional Women’s Hockey League, the PWHL, for which I’m currently the senior vice-president of hockey operations. Under the ownership of Mark Walter and Billie Jean King, we launched the PWHL on Jan. 1, 2024. To say it’s been a success to date would be an understatement. We have exceeded our projections as it relates to viewership, attendance, sponsorship sales, merchandise sales. Again, the demand for women’s sports is real. (A friendly heckler: Go Ottawa!) I know there are some Ottawa fans in the room!

But we know there’s still a lot of work to do. We’re committed to the long term. There are so many people who helped build our sport when the lights weren’t shining. Those people energize us and they keep us wanting to build more. For all the girls who were not allowed to play the game, who had no locker room, who were bullied because they loved “a boys sport” and for those who have always believed we could do better — we carry all those people with us.

The thing that makes me the proudest though, it’s not about hockey; it’s about changing society. We are creating change for the next generation — girls and boys growing up in a world that will have fewer boundaries, fewer limitations. In our children’s world — boys and girls — you can be one of the 18 million people who watched the NCAA women’s final last Monday night, and the next night you can watch your favourite NHL team play. My nine-year-old son idolizes Marie-Philip Poulin the same way he idolizes Auston Matthews. My daughters can now dream to be Caitlin Clark or Christine Sinclair.

This is not just about sport, it’s about values. We’re helping set the stage for a new generation of leaders who see the world through a different lens and whose expectations for equity will be different. Our urgency is not only heightened now to do more and to elevate further. We are not raising the bar; this is our baseline now. This is where we’re going from here. And we’re not happy to just be here, we know we belong here.

So, thank you to the Public Policy Forum for this recognition; it’s a huge honour. Thank you.

Listen to Hefford on WONK: On launching the Professional Women’s Hockey League

Hear from more PPF honourees:

  • Former astronaut and cabinet minister Marc Garneau talked about serving his country and the clarifying force of ‘a rocket about to unleash seven million pounds of thrust.’
  • Emerging Leader Award honouree Raven Lacerte discussed the national movement she launched to end violence against women: ‘I am standing up for my daughters. Who are you standing up for?’
  • Hyman Solomon Award honouree Paul Wells spoke on the importance of journalism: ‘When politicians go around us, are they doing it to get the truth to you by a shorter path?’
  • Murad Al-Katib pushed for a more ambitious Canada: ‘I want to scale businesses and I want the future to be there for our generations to come.’
  • Janice Charette extolled the privilege of a life in public service: ‘We need to celebrate those that are actually in the arena.’
  • JP Gladu explained how Indigenous nations are key to unlocking Canada’s potential: ‘The Canadian balance sheet is starting to shift. Which side of the ledger do you want to be on?’