Their own ice age

BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:30 AM ET

In the annals of women's suffrage, the right to bear a hockey stick might not rank up there with winning the vote, losing the corset, a good bra burning or the chance to wear pants. But, it's darn close, and probably a lot more fun.

So, when hockey celebrates the 30th anniversary of the Ontario Women's Hockey Association next month, it will be a watershed moment. Today, women's hockey is an accepted part of the sports scene. It is flourishing at the grassroots and is on the upward crest of a mercurial ride that has taken it to Olympic status. There are whispers of a professional league, perhaps, in modest form, as soon as next winter. The National Women's Hockey League has seven teams and big dreams.

"When I first got involved in women's hockey in the 1960s there was one team with players on it from seven to 33 years old," says Fran Rider, president of the OWHA, "there wasn't much choice."

Angela James, who would become known as "The Gretzky of women's hockey" remembers sneaking a peak into the Flemingdon Arena. She also remembers most of her childhood hockey in the 1970s consisted of outdoor shinny.

Hockey was like the tree house: No girls allowed.

Justin Blainey had to go to court before the doors to the hockey bench swung, every reluctantly, open.

There have been a thousand points of light to get from a time when former Olympian Abby Hoffman was kicked off a boys hockey team at age nine, to today, when Meghan Agosta, a 17-year-old from Ruthven, Ont., has more scholarship offers than she can count and expectations that would've been unheard of a generation ago.

"Ever since I started to play hockey at age 6," says Agosta. "I've idolized Cassie Campbell and Vicky Sunohara. It's been my dream to play for Team Canada."

She was speaking from Lake Placid, where she won a gold medal with Team Canada at the Four Nations Cup.

"It's surprising to see the credibility and the exposure that the sport has gained," says Rider. "Getting accepted into the Olympics and world championships was our objective. It was something we believed in. It is a surprise that it happened."

For some of the players today with legitimate dreams of playing for the national team, with stopovers at hundreds of tournaments from atom to senior leagues, it might be difficult to understand that attitude. But remember, Rider comes from an era when women were greeted with such snappy repartee as: "Where are the (figure skating) picks on your skates?"

The women's game is different than the men's. That doesn't make it a bad thing.

"It's hard to compare the two," says Team Canada defenceman Cheryl Pounder. "I love to skate. The flow of the game isn't broken up with the hitting. There's a lot of puck control. It's more of a thinking, finesse game. There's contact, but we rely on angling to check players since there's no actual body checking, so that's a big difference ... really thinking the game."

Today, Mississauga's Samantha Holmes plays for Team Canada. In 1988 she was 11 years old and in Calgary for the Olympics with her parents.

"I knew we were going to see hockey but I thought I'd see women's hockey and I didn't understand why it wasn't there. I couldn't understand why my brothers could play in the Olympics but as a girl I couldn't."

Holmes began a letter writing campaign. "I wrote Mayor Hazel McCallion, (IOC president) Juan Samaranch and the local newspaper got involved. It snowballed. Every response I got was positive. I was an 11-year-old girl who didn't understand why I couldn't play in the Olympics and nobody had an answer. They just said, 'I don't know why.' "

Two years later the International Ice Hockey Federation, coaxed by Rider, and Samaranch, and girls who wrote letters, sanctioned the first women's world championship.

"The players in the 50s and 60s had to put up with a lot of ridicule because there was a widespread feeling that they couldn't play the game," says Rider. "To say there wasn't a lot of respect is probably saying it nicely."

James, who would go on to become a Team Canada captain and win four world championships, remembers the anticipation of that first tournament in 1990. "We were kind of fighting for respect saying, 'Hey, we're here, we know how to play; we want to play; give us a chance.'

"Back then it was old school. It was more difficult to get respect off the ice than it was on the ice. When you play the game and you play it well the respect automatically comes. Off the ice in the boardroom when you have people that really don't know anything about the game, that's where it's difficult. Now you get into old school prejudices and politics."

James would become the first poster girl for the sport. From the inception of Team Canada in 1987 until she was cut in December 1997 just before the Nagano Games, James scored 22 goals and 12 assists.

The women's game has obstacles. James believes the game needs to upgrade its administration. Sue Fennell, commissioner of the NWHL, is critical of Hockey Canada for holding back the growth of the league. Fan attendance is improving but sporadic and the NHL lockout has been a non-factor.

"A lot of people, if they give it a chance," says Rider, "get really hooked by it. It's a very physical game but there isn't the finishing off of body checks. The small player can excel. It's a style that emphasizes speed and passing."

---

There have never been such opportunities for girls in hockey. In the U.S. there are now 35 Division 1 programs and countless others at lower levels. Many of those schools offer scholarships and they recruit heavily in Canada.

Six national team players compete in U.S. Division 1 hockey: Gillian Apps and Katie Weatherston at Dartmouth, Caroline Ouellette in Minnesota, Sarah Vaillancourt at Harvard, Tessa Bonhomee at Ohio State and Carla McLeod at Wisconsin.

"I've had at least 20 schools come to my house and offer me scholarships," says Agosta. "One or two, it's not difficult to choose but this going to be a tough decision. I want to go where the coach knows my strengths and weaknesses and where they can make me a better player. It's difficult."

Difficult?

Justin Blainey had difficult. Fran Rider had difficult. Angela James had difficult. Agosta and company have complicated.

"There's a ton of opportunities for women now," says Pounder, who plays for Toronto Aeros of the NWHL when not patrolling the blueline for Team Canada. "It's evolving. The last six or seven years it's started to bust out. I'm excited that there's so much available to young players."

Last year there were 31,122 players in female-only leagues in Ontario, playing on 2,060 teams. Ten years ago the province had 7,848 girls registered on 557 teams.

"It's probably a surprise to see the numbers that are playing but if we're sitting here 10 years from now we hope that today's numbers look low because we believe so much what hockey does for people," says Rider. "We see how important it is for these girls to experience the team environment ... the immeasurable life messages they learn from playing hockey."

The provincial championships in age groups from atom to senior will be contested in Brampton and Mississauga in February and April.

The nationals are in Sarnia, March 7-14.

"In the long term we have plans for both international and national youth championships for different age categories," says Rider. "Research indicates that more girls at five or six will come out if there are all-girl teams and leagues."

This winter there are 21 women's minor hockey tournaments in the GTA and three times as many within a couple hours driving distance.

"If we could measure what someone's house league experience did to make them a better person or help them in the business world I think we would see a lot of positive messages," says Rider. "The game teaches sound life skills as well as hockey experience."

Many players at the higher levels, says Rider, are "heavily recruited by the police, fire departments and the military. The attributes young girls learn through hockey are attractive in those careers."

Then there's the advent of the NWHL.

"We envision the NWHL as the women's equivalent to the NHL with thousands of fans having a wonderful time. The difference is we're affordable family entertainment," says Fennell, commissioner of the seven-team league that includes teams in Brampton, Durham, Toronto and Oakville. "We have said by 2006 we want to define ourselves as a pro league. In that sense most teams have already starting weaning themselves of players who want to keep their university eligibility.

"We aren't a developmental league and we don't say, 'Come to the NWHL so you can earn a scholarship'. We hold ourselves to be the pinnacle of our game. We are not a national training team. Our goal is to be the home of the best hockey players in the world -- just like the NHL."

Rider notes when a player finishes at the elite level there are now coaching and administrative opportunities that never before existed. For instance, in an area once dominated by men, the OWHA now has 278 female game officials.

James, senior sports co-ordinator for York University at its Seneca campus, has remained active as a referee and still plays occasionally. She sees the women's game undergoing growing pains.

"I think the growth is outweighing our system. We need a better infrastructure. I don't really want to cut up the OWHA but we need more people, more organization, implementing all aspects of hockey and a better handle on everything. And that costs money."

There is one problem common to boys' hockey. Cost.

"It's become a bit of a rich man's sport," says James. "I work in sport, but just to go and get an hour of ice, I was appalled that they wanted $265. I was like are you serious? That was insane. If we don't do something about that it's going to have an effect on the development of hockey. And it won't be good."

---

Women's hockey is hitting the mainstream. This becomes evident when, like the men's game, it even has its own dispute over where the first game was played. The OWHA says it was Ottawa, in 1891. But, they're willing to be convinced otherwise, Rider says with a laugh.

She just remembers 1967, playing with the Brampton Canadettes. "It was a tournament team. That was all there was and it was a struggle to get ice. We got a call one night at 11:30 that there was an opening for an hour at Weston Arena. Within half an hour we had the entire team there. The arena management gave us an extra hour, so we were there until 2 a.m. It was like someone had given us a gold mine; just the fact we could get on the ice and have an actual practice. That's how much the players wanted to participate."

James remembers peeking into the Flemingdon Park arena when, instead of kids, "it was more senior ladies at that point. I remember going and watching, but mostly I played ball hockey on the road."

That is the anomaly of women's hockey. Unlike most sports it has not grown from the grassroots. "It very much developed from the top down. Senior women played for years," says Rider. "We faced a lot of opposition from people who said, 'You shouldn't be developing the high performance until the grassroots is developed.' But clearly the best way to develop the grassroots was to give girls the role models at the high performance end, and the national and world championships did that. Girls suddenly had role models to aspire to and that's what built the grassroots."

The formation of the OWHA in 1975 resulted in a lobby for the first national championships in 1982 when women's hockey got its first sponsor --Shopper's Drug Mart.

Then came the world tournament in 1987.

"We got together with people from various countries and decided we would put pressure on our Olympic committees to get into the Olympics," says Rider. "Whatever has happened to the women's game, the quality of player has been phenomenal. They've honed their skills in an atmosphere that has been very challenging at best. That's really the success story of women's hockey -- the commitment and character of the players themselves."

There is growing discussion about a women's professional hockey league. James would like to see it happen now. Rider believes "a full pro league" could be a decade away. Fennell says the NWHL has plans to start, in modest form, next year.

"I think right now is prime while the NHL lockout is on," argues James. "My roommate, her name's Angela McDonald, is actually more passionate about hockey than I am and she wants me to do something. She would like Oprah Winfrey to buy a U.S. team and maybe get Belinda Stronach to put together a team and have a European team and put together a 15-game schedule. Kind of like the old baseball barn-storming days.

"It would be nice if we could get it together quickly, pay the girls $60,000 to $70,000 to play versus the two or three million dollars they pay in the NHL and get some games going to replace the NHL."

A pipe dream. Sure, admits James, but so was the idea of women playing Olympic hockey years ago. "You need to have someone who is passionate for the female game and who has lots of money. I don't know those people."

She doesn't see the NHL stepping up. "Unlike the NBA which supported the women's basketball league; the NHL can't even take care of their own backyard so I can't see them starting something new."

Fennell isn't so sure. She's had "friendly" discussions with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and believes when the NWHL is ready the NHL will be supportive. She's cautious about what that support might entail but says the NWHL will look like a pro league next year even if it isn't actually paying players. Yet. "It's at the point in the maize toward professional status that the players don't pay to play anymore, they get uniforms and equipment and we pay for expenses."

Meantime, the NWHL tries to build fan support and make itself an entertainment alternative. The Brampton Thunder play in the 5,000-seat arena used by the local OHL team. They might draw 1,000 to 1,500 fans -- on a good night.

The other teams play in smaller community rinks, although Ottawa is moving to a 2,000-seat facility. Toronto Aeros are barnstormers, playing nine of 18 "home" games in towns like Napanee or Bowmanville where they hook up with local minor hockey associations to make their visits a community event.

"They'll get a thousand people to games," says Fennell.

"People want to watch good hockey. Team Canada is fine but they pop up in their red jerseys once every four years somewhere in the world that fans can't get to. What we give people is access to a lot of the best players in the world."

Fennell says Hockey Canada hasn't been very helpful boosting the league's international flavour. It allows the league's teams two international imports and two American imports. It irks Fennell that national team players from China and Germany have had to be turned away.

"I like to work with people who see the big picture ... and you can print that," she says. "There are no restrictions for the NHL; there shouldn't be any for the NWHL."

While James sees the NHL lockout as a potential boon to women's hockey, Rider finds it worrisome.

"We're anxious and hopeful the Canadian public continue to view hockey with the feelings it has in the past ... that it continues to be the great Canadian tradition," says Rider. "Look at what happened with baseball. Even in the U.S., where baseball is everything, it lost a certain following."

If fan favour can trickle down, so too, can public indifference and anger.

---

Women's hockey is now played in at least 26 countries.

In a few it is even played with excellence. This year's edition of Team Canada again won the Four Nations tournament.

Not to spit in the face of success, but it shows how much room there is internationally for the game to grow, says Fennell. "When I see the world championships, the Olympics, it's always: Canada, the States, maybe Finland. In that order. I'm afraid if that stays like that someone will say that's not a real Olympic sport because it's too predictable."

It is one reason she wants import restrictions removed from the NWHL. "We have a responsibility to show fans the best hockey. We have a responsibility to grow the game."

To lose Olympic status could be a killing blow to a sport that has just started to develop national and international icons. Pounder and Holmes remember watching James. Cassie Campbell was a hero to Jayna Hefford, who scored the winning goal for Canada at the last Olympics.

And, it is Hefford who Agosta looks to for guidance.

"When I was growing up," says Holmes, "Angela (James) used to play at the Mississauga rink where I would public skate ... after public skating my dad would pick us up and bring my brothers home and then take me back and watch them play.

"I remember one time at the world championships she was the MVP and she came over and gave me her little award. I was that little girl who was all in awe of meeting her idol."

Holmes went on to play with James at a Team Canada evaluation camp. Now, a long way from those letters she once sent to Samaranch, she's looking forward to her first Olympics.

"I think that's what motivated me to write those letters, because I wanted the chance -- and I wanted my friends to have the chance -- to play for my country," she says. "I remember the atmosphere in 1988 when I was 11. I could see the power it had, the fun."

Rider acknowledges the sport has much room for growth but is thrilled with the changing morays of society. "In the early stages if we attracted media (it was) someone from the Lifestyle section. It was a positive to finally be in the paper but clearly women's hockey belonged on the sports pages."

A league of their own; whether it's the Chicken Hut Atoms, the national team or NWHL, it's all they have ever wanted.

"I guess that's why I don't understand the NHL," says James. "You hear the players say, always, that it is business, well, it can't be business. When you learned to play hockey it wasn't business. It was fun. It was play. So, how come now it's all about business?"

Rider's fervent wish is that as women's hockey grows it never loses innocence. "Our challenge is to keep the values in the game because there was really nothing else to take from the game for all those years.

"Women played because they loved the game. That was the sole motivation; there were no dollars to take from it, there were no opportunities of high performance teams. Now that those good things are there it's important that we do everything we can to make sure that the old values and positives stay."


Photos