Chasing a golden dream

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 7:21 AM ET

The rink's lobby is packed as it is at most hockey tournaments -- parents, friends, family and players gather around the tables of what amounts to a mini-flea market that seems to spring up at these things. There is a table with digital photographs of the players in action, another with action figures and hockey cards, pictures and pins, and another that's a small food court, with pizza, date squares, lemon bread, muffins, fruit and cereal bars all for sale for the hungry participants.

The players roam the lobby in their team jackets.

One clue that this isn't another typical tourney: The "Chicks With Sticks" T-shirts are a hot seller at one booth.

The 22nd annual Kanata Girls' Competitive Tournament has packed the Kanata Recreation Centre.

On one rink, the Kanata Rangers are playing the Gloucester Cumberland Stars in a peewee AA game.

On the other side, the Kanata Rangers are playing the Cornwall Typhoons in a midget BB game.

About 500 girls are participating in this annual tournament, reflecting the blossoming popularity of female hockey in Canada, particularly here in Ontario, home of almost half of Canada's female players.

400% INCREASE

Female hockey has had a 400% increase in participation in 10 years in Canada -- from about 7,000 players to 65,000.

Female hockey is no longer just a quaint diversion.

Watching the games in this tournament, you see how far female hockey has come with its growing popularity attracting better athletes, and better coaching improving and refining skills.

A big reason for the growth is there is now something at the end of the rainbow for hockey-playing girls, though it still isn't the pot of gold it is for their male counterparts.

It's a gold medal.

The images of Canadian women winning gold at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics have sparked the imaginations of girls across Canada.

Playing for the women's national team with a chance to represent your country and win a gold medal has become a treasured goal.

There is also opportunities for hockey scholarships at Canadian and American universities. Twenty-seven Canadian universities offer women's hockey programs (Hockey Canada has developed a PowerPoint presentation for players, parents and high school advisers to help them determine which schools meet a player's needs. The presentation covers academics, hockey and finances, and provides some contact information. Visit hockeycanada.ca for more information).

Today, girls know there are also opportunities in the seven-team National Women's Hockey League, which has a team in Ottawa (the Raiders), along with franchises in Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Brampton, Oakville and a squad under the sponsorship of Telus.

BEST IN WORLD

It's the best women's hockey league in the world, and includes members of the Canadian and U.S. national teams.

"A lot of (the growing popularity) has to do with the introduction of (women's) hockey as an Olympic sport," said Shannon Donovan from her Calgary office where she's responsible for female domestic hockey for Hockey Canada. "That had a huge effect. We have had our greatest growth since 1998 and 2002 with us winning the gold."

Canada has won all eight women's world championships, as well as one gold medal and a silver since the sport was introduced at the 1998 Winter Olympics.

It has produced a bunch of national heroes for today's girls to look up to -- players such as Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell and Danielle Goyette, and goalies Sami Jo Small and Kim St. Pierre.

It's the latter two that Madeline Marsh, 12, a goaltender with the Rangers peewee AA team, especially admires.

"I think it's important to have them to look up to because when you have only men playing hockey, you don't think you can do as much," she said.

"Now with the Olympic team and the women's league, I think I can get more out of hockey. I just really want to go as far as I can."

She comes from good stock. Her dad is former NHLer Brad Marsh.

A highlight of each summer for Madeline and a growing number of girls from the area is attending the hockey camp put on by Olympians Lori Dupuis and Jayna Hefford.

Marsh has attended the school for the last four years.

"It's really great because there are a lot of women from the Olympic team and university hockey," she said. "It's a really good experience and you get a lot of good advice."

A camp highlight was when the Canadian Olympians brought in their gold medals and gave the girls a chance to touch them.

There is no putting a value on the importance of young players getting that kind of tangible experience, of giving them the vision and the hope that they can aspire to great things in the steps of women who have gone before them.

"Girls' hockey has really come into its own," said Patty Marsh, Madeline's mom. "It can stand alone. You talk to a lot of the girls and ask them who their favourite player is and it's a woman.

"There are scholarships for girls and a pro league. It's something they can do and they are really aware of that. There's a pride there that this is their own thing."

SCHOLARSHIPS

Marsh and her friends dream about playing for the Olympic team or earning a university scholarship.

"I'm hoping to get a scholarship," said Marsh. "I think it would be really fun to play university hockey."

Just a decade ago, that would not have been the dream or desire of many 12-year-old girls.

Another 12-year-old goalie, Katie Grandis, remembers starting hockey because some boys wouldn't let her play a mini-sticks game with them. She decided then, at age six, that she was going to play real hockey.

"I like the team part of it, the feeling of being part of a team and meeting new friends," said Grandis, who plays with Kanata's peewee AA team. "I like, if you're down in a game, your teammates will just tell you to forget it and help you. It's like having another family.

"On the ice, I just like stopping the puck. I don't know how to explain how it feels ... like I accomplished something."

She said she would like the chance to play for Olympic gold, but hasn't really thought that far ahead. She has allowed herself to think about maybe getting a hockey scholarship to a university.

So has 12-year-old Hillary Hamilton, a defenceman in Kanata with the peewee AA team.

In the meantime, she said the Olympic team is important to girls.

"We can watch them, see their skills, how they play and learn from them," she said.

"It's my dream one day to play for the Olympic team."

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com


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