Pioneers of the game

PAUL FRIESEN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 11:00 AM ET

Pearl Wylie only wishes she'd had the opportunities that female hockey players have today.

The 75-year-old might have fewer aches and pains if she had.

"They've really progressed," Wylie, who played women's hockey in the late 1940s and early '50s, told the Sun. "They weight train -- we didn't have anything like that. My coach would have me on the ice the whole game... I need two knees and a hip, today."

But she doesn't need much help recalling the "good old days," when women fought stereotypes to play what was generally considered a man's game.

While the 1990 Canadian team is being recognized here for its role in winning the first women's world championship, the real female hockey pioneers go back much further than that.

Wylie was part of a Winnipeg team -- the Carruthers Rough Riders is how she remembers it -- that competed for the Dominion Cup, using whatever equipment they could find.

"We used to borrow it from the boys," she said. "One of the teams we played had different coloured sweaters. We'd spend all winter on the rink. We'd play with broomsticks -- anything we could find."

In the early '50s, the team folded, but that didn't stop Wylie and some friends from pursuing their puck passion.

"Myself and two other girls wanted to still play, so we quit our jobs and went to Moose Jaw," she said.

Coached by Lew McNamee, the Moose Jaw Wildcats had won the Dominion Cup in 1951, defeating teams from Regina and Saskatoon, then Port Arthur (now Thunder Bay) in a two-game series.

"It was a pretty big deal," McNamee, now 90 and still living in Moose Jaw, said. "But there weren't as many girls hockey teams in those days. Back in those days, a lot of people didn't take too kindly to women's hockey. They said they should be in the kitchen. I had a lot of respect for the way they played."

The Wildcats entertained fans at carnivals around Saskatchewan, even traveled down to the States with another women's team for some exhibition games.

"They advertised ahead of time that we didn't like each other," Wylie recalled. "They'd stage it, that we'd face off and (her opponent) would fall down and grab my pants and pull them down. It was a show."

When they were playing for keeps, the women were allowed to body-check back then, a rule that's since changed.

"I can't see how they can play without body-checking," Wylie said. "If you know how to get hit, you don't get hurt."

Wylie says some of her teammates went on to play women's baseball in the U.S., as part of the circuit popularized by the movie, A League of Their Own.

While women's baseball hasn't evolved much since, hockey certainly has.

This week, Wylie and former teammate Marlene Hensrud, who drove up from her current home in Chicago, reunited to watch Team Canada go for gold -- an opportunity they would have loved to get, some 55 years ago.

"We were a little disappointed it didn't go further at that time," Hensrud said. "I'm thoroughly enjoying this."

In some small way, Hensrud, Wylie and their teammates helped pave the way for it, too.

But pioneers? They're not so sure.

"I don't know," Wylie said. "Because there were people who played before us."

Pioneers or not, they certainly had the spirit.

A spirit Team Canada would do well to emulate today.


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