Sports

HOCKEY WITH A FRESH FACE

An influx of girls is giving the game a badly needed lift, CHARLIE GILLIS reports

March 8 2004
Sports

HOCKEY WITH A FRESH FACE

An influx of girls is giving the game a badly needed lift, CHARLIE GILLIS reports

March 8 2004

HOCKEY WITH A FRESH FACE

Sports

An influx of girls is giving the game a badly needed lift, CHARLIE GILLIS reports

THEY MIGHT be hell on ice. But in the muggy precincts of their subterranean dressing room, and in the upstairs gym where they limber up for games, the Notre Dame Hounds admit one weakness. “Overconfidence,” says Chantel Morrison, a 16-year-old defenceman with the elite girls’ midget hockey team. She pushes back a strand of hair and seats herself on a bench in the exercise room, worrying the tape on her hockey stick with a stump of wax. It’s 30 minutes until game time, and the Hounds are immersed in ritual—stretching, skipping, knocking about tennis balls with their sticks. “We’re always stooping to the other team’s level,” Morrison continues, waxing as she speaks. “Even when we play a crappy team, we’ll win 4-1 when it should be, like, 20-0.”

Athol Murray College of Notre Dame in Wilcox, Sask., a half-hour south of Regina, has long held its hockey players to a high standard. Founded by a sports-mad priest on the empty prairie 77 years ago, the high school is a well-known hothouse of male hockey talent, and the girls are a fitting corollary to the legacy. Since it first took to the ice in 1991, the midget team here has won seven provincial girls’ titles and three western Canadian championships. Of their 28 games this season, Morrison and company have lost just three.

But tonight’s visitors, the Regina Cougars, aren’t about to roll over. Buoyed by solid goaltending and a few timely bounces, they rally from a 1-0 deficit to tie Notre Dame on a goal-mouth scramble halfway through the first period. Five minutes later, they’ve taken the lead, and when the Hounds return to their bench at intermission, coach Eric Lockwood issues a blunt warning: the competition has improved, he tells his players. “We’re letting them stay in the game by not playing up to our ability. We’re giving them hope.”

BY DINT OF sheer numbers, the competition is going to keep improving—for the Hounds and everyone else in girls’ hockey. In the 2002-03 season, a record 61,000 females registered in the sport across Canada, almost 7,000 more than the season before and a near fivefold increase from a decade before. Walk into practically any arena and you can see the evidence: a waiting list for the female league in Cornwall, Ont.; extra sessions at a girls’ hockey school in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley; heavy demand for female coaches and referees from St.John’s to Victoria. And in hockey’s rural heartlands—the Prairies, the Maritimes, small-town Quebec-former boys-only teams are now happily filling out their rosters with girls who once might have sat giggling in the stands. So much for sugar and spice.

LAST season, a record 61,000 females registered in hockey across Canada, a near fivefold increase from 10 years before

It’s happening, curiously enough, during a period of stagnant growth in male minor hockey—a consequence, analysts say, of high equipment costs and the shifting interests of Canadian boys. For the past five years, Hockey Canada’s count of males registered in hockey has hovered around 475,000, while boys have poured into other sports such as soccer. The result? Girls are now the main engine of growth in the national game, and a critical source of the fees that keep its arenas open. Gone are the days when “inclusiveness” meant a few ponytails in your minor hockey association’s annual slide show. “It’s just excellent,” says Fran Rider, executive director of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association. “The positive values of the game, the intelligence level the players show—I think all those things are being recognized now by the sporting public.”

If numbers alone don’t command respect, the improved play of women should. Ever since girls began flooding into hockey in the early 1990s—many of them inspired by national team stars like Manon Rheaume and Nancy Drolet—female hockey has been a sport wrapped in euphemisms. Developing. Different. Unique. If correctitude stopped a lot of minor hockey executives from saying boring, they must have been thinking it as they meted out practice time and decided where to spend their development dollars. “I know there are some places in Canada where it’s still a challenge for women’s teams to get ice time,” says Danielle Sauvageau, the coach of the Canadian women’s team that won gold at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. “Especially the good ice time.”

But now, as the first generation of female players truly raised on hockey skates reaches its prime playing years, those same organizers are getting a taste of how good the women’s game can be. “It’s a skill game, where the skilled player will do very well no matter how big or small she is,” says Les Lawton, coach of the women’s varsity team at Montreal’s Concordia University. “You don’t always get that on the men’s side.”

Lawton, who has coached at the university level for 22 years, credits long-standing rule differences for the distinct evolution of female hockey. Aware that violence might discourage girls from signing up, provincial branches agreed in the early 1990s to ban all-out bodychecking and, later, to allow socalled two-line passing through the neutral zone. The result, he says, was a game that rewarded speed and positioning rather than size and strength. Then there was the feminine factor—an on-ice generosity which, deny it as they might, girls demonstrate more than boys. “They want everybody on the ice to succeed,” says Phil Blunt, a father of three hockey-playing girls from Brantford, Ont., who coaches his daughters’ bantam rep team. “I think it’s somewhat in their nature. They look more at the team concept, and that’s just nicer to coach.”

4| JUST like fast sports,’ says a player who started out in figure skating. ‘As long as there’s a team for me, I’ll keep playing.’

SO ARE GIRLS returning the game to its ideal form? Or does hockey naturally revert to its rural, pond-ice roots when there’s no fighting allowed, and no NHL contract at the end of the rainbow? The questions seem like good ones on a winter’s night in Cudworth, Sask., a farming town northeast of Saskatoon, where families are arriving by the pickup-load for a four-team midget girls’ tournament. The snow is so cold it squeaks beneath your boots. But it’s warm in the foyer of Cudworth’s pine-plank arena, where Michelle Diederichs watches over a steaming cup of coffee as her two daughters play for the home side. “I had both girls in figure skating at one point,” says the 34-year-old mother, who has organized the event. “But it wasn’t exciting enough for them.”

Tonight, Ashlie Diederichs, 15, and her 14-year-old sister, Jodie, don’t fare so well. They lose their last game of the day to a team from nearby Shellbrook. Yet they emerge from the dressing room looking lit from within, happy just to have played. Ashlie, blond and pink-cheeked, admits that elite hockey—on a university or highperformance team—may be out of her reach. But that’s not why she’s here. “I just like fast sports,” she shrugs, plunking herself at a folding wooden table in the foyer. She was drawn to the game after watching local boys skate in league games. Now she can’t imagine ever quitting. “As long as there’s a team for me,” she says, “I’ll keep playing.”

Not far behind Ashlie is her coach, Myron Hackl, a former boys’ instructor who returned to the bench when his youngest daughter took up hockey five years ago, and is enjoying the game now more than ever. “There’s not as much pressure,” he says, unzipping his parka. “With the girls, you don’t come into the dressing room yelling and kicking the garbage can. They just wouldn’t respond.” Of course, running a league between far-flung communities has its challenges: two Cudworth-area teams recently folded because players left for more elite squads. But Hackl applauds local families for doing everything to keep the game alive, picking up kids who can’t get rides, encouraging younger girls to take up hockey. “This has really brought our community together,” he says.

A good thing, too, because you can draw a direct line from places like Cudworth to the Canadian national women’s team, or international events like this month’s world championships in Halifax. Hayley Wickenheiser —arguably the world’s best female playerlearned to skate on a backyard rink in Shaunavon, Sask., sticking with the game despite her father’s fears that it held no future. Most of Notre Dame’s players took similar routes, first playing with brothers and friends, then hooking up with elite girls’ teams when the option became available. Now they aspire to the Olympics or, failing that, U.S. colleges where they can play on scholarships. “You look up to the national women’s team,” says Brooke Einarson, a 17-year-old forward from Morden, Man. “You want to be there.”

But if the female game is going to keep expanding, girls need more such opportunities, says Nancy Wilson, who runs the Centre Ice Female Hockey School in Summerland, B.C. “If a star player who’s 13 or 14 has a dream of playing on the national team, where does she go where she’s going to be challenged? We have to give girls every opportunity to try out for a team at the provincial or regional level.” Wilson credits Hockey Canada and its provincial branches for creating girls-only initiatives, ranging from skills days to coaching clinics to an under-22 program, which grooms talented players for national team play. But she and other critics believe there’s much more work to be done.

Sauvageau, who is no longer the national team coach but remains a vocal advocate for women’s hockey, is calling for a permanent under-18 program as well as girls-only centres of excellence at four locations across the country. These hubs, she says, could serve as training centres for female coaches and referees, and as launch pads for teams in an elite league (with nine teams, the current National Women’s Hockey League has spread the talent too thinly, according to Sauvageau). “I believe Hockey Canada needs to take the lead,” she says. “Four or five years down the road, it could tell the teams they have to survive on their own.”

For now, the agency appears focused on training coaches and officials: Shannon Donovan, Hockey Canada’s manager of domestic female development programs, notes that only four of Canada’s 1,100 or so female referees are qualified to officiate at the world championships in Halifax. And while the governing body does hold a national under18 tournament every four years, the cost of separate centres of excellence for girls would be difficult to justify, she says. That’s not to say governing bodies are neglecting the female game. “You do see the branches buying into the programs and starting new programs for girls,” Donovan argues. “They’re putting money into this because they realize it’s not going away.”

THE SAME could be said for the pesky Regina Cougars. After surrendering their lead in the second, they’ve held off a Hounds’ onslaught through most of the third. It’s hockey at its best, with quick passing and lots of rink-length rushes for the 100 or so spectators gathered in the arena. Finally, with 11 seconds left, Notre Dame right-winger Karissa Swan nabs a loose puck in Regina territory, fakes her way past a checker and—in the blink it takes a pure scorer to work her magic—roofs a wrist shot for the 3-2 win. Lockwood permits himself a small smile on the way off the ice. But down in the dressing room, he’s all business. “OK, we won and that’s fine,” he tells the players as they unlace their skates. “But we’re in a key part of the season, and we can’t afford not to play at the top of our game.” It’s a fitting theme for the female game in general. Victory is sweet and the future may look bright. The challenge now is to build on success. ITU

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