GWEN SMITH April 7 1997


GWEN SMITH April 7 1997




Nike or Louisville? Geraldine Heaney could not decide. Which equipment sponsor should she go for? Her agent told her that it was down to the wire, she had to choose. But Heaney had never faced this kind of business decision before. She found it tortuous. Besides, Heaney, a 29-year-old part-time hockey instructor from Toronto, had a national championship to prepare for and she had to focus on her training. She finally told her agent to pick for her, and so it came to pass that the top defender in women’s hockey now represents Louisville’s female players’ line of pants, pads and gloves. And coming soon to local sporting good stores: the Geraldine Heaney stick. “Imagine,” she still says a month after the deal closed, “I have an agent.”

After years in near-obscurity, years of being ridiculed as girls playing at a man’s game, years of fighting for ice time, Canadian women’s hockey is finally on a breakaway. It is fast becoming a serious sport and a serious business.

There are two reasons that the Rodney Dangerfield of women’s athletics is getting respect. First, it is an event at next winter’s Olympics in Nagano,

Japan, and second, the Canadians are that good. As the warm-up to the Olympics, the women’s team is in the hunt for its fourth consecutive gold medal at the world championships this week in Kitchener, Ont. ‘This,” says coach Shannon Miller, “is simply the best team we’ve ever put on the ice.”

That is not just a coach’s idle boast.

There has been a near-revolution in the quality of the game since the first world championships of women’s hockey in 1990. While the Canadians have been the world’s best from the beginning, their play has improved dramatically—they skate faster, shoot harder, pass more crisply and, while not allowed to body check in the open ice, they pack more power when taking opponents into the boards. Miller, a former Calgary cop, admits: “Sometimes I’m amazed. Sometimes I find myself thinking, ‘Has this ever happened fast. Has this game ever progressed in seven years.’ ”

There is no question that Canada is the team to beat in Kitchener and will be again at Nagano. Russia, Finland and Sweden are all in hot pursuit. Even China is trying to come on strong, drawn to the sport by the lure of freshly minted Olympic medals. But the real competition is the United States, which is just itching to knock Canada off its perch.

A Canada-U.S. final at the Olympics would be a marquee matchup. And so the sponsors—the equipment and cereal makers—are starting to come onboard, seeking affiliations with those at the top of the sport. “If it gets down to a Canada-U.S. final, it will lead to an explosion of interest in the game,” says Keith McIntyre, the agent for Heaney and teammate Cassie Campbell. The Canadian Hockey Association agrees, predicting that the Olympics will be followed by a flurry of parents suiting up young daughters for girls’ leagues. The year after each of three gold medals in the world championships, the ranks of girls enrolled in recreational club hockey swelled. The ban on open-ice body-checking after the 1990 worlds— largely due to the damage the Canadian squad was inflicting—helped

mute parental concerns about the game’s physical toll.

France St. Louis, a veteran of Team Canada, remembers that in the days following that first world championship, “the Quebec federation received all these calls from people saying, ‘How do I sign up my daughter?’ ”

Quebec enrolment more than doubled in one year. Over the past 10 years, girls’ hockey participation nationally has increased by 364 per cent to 24,000 players—and that does not include girls playing for boys’ teams or young women on high-school or university teams.

Of course, women’s enrolment pales next to the 482,000 currently signed up in Canadian male leagues.

But the women’s game has come a long way. At the turn of the century, players battled up the ice in flowing skirts, looking more like sisters of the cloth than members of a team. The Preston Rivulettes amassed an enviable winloss record throughout the 1930s—348-2. But the war effort drew attentions elsewhere and Canadian teams such as the Icebergs, the Snowflakes and the Amazons folded. By the ’50s, women’s hockey had fizzled.

It began to resurface in the mid-’60s as local teams sprang up in pockets across the country, leading to organized tournaments and provincial councils. That growth spawned the world championships and, after intense international lobbying, the Olympics. Now, Canadian organizers are predicting that many little girls will want to be the next Hayley Wickenheiser, the game’s 18-year-old phenom and Olympic star in the making.

At five feet, nine inches and 163 lb., Wickenheiser combines physical presence with speed, goal scoring ability and a burning desire to win. (As for that familiar name, she is a distant cousin of Doug Wickenheiser, a 10year NHL veteran.) Unlike many of the veterans, Wickenheiser, of Calgary, has always played organized hockey—on boys’ teams up to midget level. Now, as a top-rated Olympic hopeful, she receives $800 a month from Sport Canada. She trains in Canada’s first high-performance female hockey program, which Miller runs from Calgary’s Olympic Oval. She attends university in the morning, then it’s a couple of hours in the weight room and then hockey. She is on the ice six days a week.

Wickenheiser is the wave of the future, Miller says, a sign of the progress in the sport. The coach only wishes that public support were keeping pace. “The level of acceptance has been slow,” Miller admits. “Far too slow, in my opinion.” In a land of hockey heroes, acceptance begins with recognition—and there are obvious signs that it has yet to arrive.

At the training camp before the worlds, a team of 10-year-old boys watch the women practice at a Barrie, Ont., arena. They cluster opposite one of the nets. “Hey, that’s her,” says one. “That’s the girl who played for Tampa Bay.” Another chimes in: ‘Yeah, yeah. That’s Manon.” A harsh reality is that Manon Rhéaume remains the bestknown female hockey player in the world because she plays in the professional male leagues, now in Reno for the West Coast Hockey


home, the recognition is not much better. Several players tell of being forced to give up day jobs or take substantial pay cuts to compete at world championships. Some have been demoted because of absences. Many have made trade-offs to keep playing well before they knew there would be any shot at an Olympic berth or any notion of a sponsor’s endorsement. “Sacrifices,” St. Louis repeats, taking a big breath, “where would I start? I still make sacrifices every weekend to play on Saturday or Sunday at 11 p.m. or midnight. You practise at that hour during the week and get up for work.” It’s the only ice time her top-ranked club team can get in Montreal.

St. Louis’s job as a highschool sports director has been on the line before because of the demands of hockey. “For now, it’s OK,” she says blandly. She can’t worry about that at the moment. She is too preoccupied by the wrist she broke at the final game of the national competition. At 38, St. Louis is the oldest member of Team Canada, and its heart and soul. She wants so badly to be at the Olympics. What if it causes problems with her job? “I’m ready to do whatever it takes to go. Whatever it takes.”

St. Louis is in the best shape of her life. But now with the wrist, sometimes the toll of women’s hockey seems daunting. Her friend Sylvie Daigle, the 1992 Olympic medal-winning short-track speed skater, helps keep her spirits up. “Sylvie said to me, ‘Keep going, keep going. It’s not that far.’ She told me about some guy who was skiing at the • Olympics and he’s 42. She re] ally encourages me.”

All the dedication St. Louis 1 and others have put into this ! sport may soon pay off. Before ■ the Olympics, no team member dared contemplate much of a future in or around women’s hockey. Now, who knows? Watching the emergence of women’s professional basketball and softball in the States, some players suggest that a semi-professional women’s hockey league could be in the cards. Others are wary of such ambition. All they agree on is that the Olympics is a turning point. ‘We just sit here going, Wow, we never thought we were going to get anything out of this,’ ” marvels Heaney. “They’re telling us that a lot is going to happen with women’s hockey prior to the Olympics. And then after the Olympics, it will be even better. Especially if we win gold.” □

League. But her real claim to fame is that she played in an exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1992; an attractive woman in a male bastion, she was a natural novelty act for a new team seeking attention in the Sunbelt. Ironically, less than a week before the start of the world championships, Miller cut Rhéaume from the Canadian squad, saying that goalies Danielle Dubé of Vancouver and Lesley Reddon of Fredericton, N.B., had been more consistent.

The biggest names in Canadian women’s hockey are Wickenheiser, St. Louis, Heaney, Danielle Goyette and Angela James. But the kids at the Barrie rink have never heard of them. Closer to