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WWHC: A history of women's hockey in Canada

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Paul Harrington
4/2/2013 4:46:35 PM
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The return of the women's world hockey championships to Ottawa will be a homecoming in a number of ways.

The nation's capital hosted the very first women's championship in 1990. That's the tournament remembered for its pink uniforms, pink pom-poms and a pink Zamboni.

And, of course, a gold medal for Canada.

But Ottawa's connections to the women's game go back much farther than that.

To the very beginning, as it turns out.

A game played at the Rideau Skating Club in Ottawa in March of 1889 is recognized by the NHL and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) as the first women's hockey game on record.
 
Eight women took part, four with the Rideau Club team and four on a team from Government House. In fact, one of the Government House players was Lady Isobel Stanley.

Her father was Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada's Governor-General. Three years later he would donate the trophy that is now the symbol of men's professional hockey supremacy.

115 years later, another occupant of Rideau Hall would lend her name plus the hardware for a fledgling pro league for women.

Early growth

Not long after that first game at a small Ottawa rink, things began to happen quickly in female hockey. By the 1890's women's teams were being formed across Canada. The first female hockey club was established in 1895 at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. They called themselves the Love-Me-Littles, suggesting perhaps a team that was not to be messed with. They appear to have had a change of heart though, because two years later they switched names to the less intimidating Morning Glories.

Women's leagues began to spring up across North America. By 1912, some of them adopted rules allowing full contact.

Women playing hockey was also seen as a commercial opportunity. In 1916 a "ladies hockey championship of Canada" was staged in, of all places, Cleveland. It matched the Cornwall Victorias and the Ottawa Alerts.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer promised that all the players were "perfectly at home on the ice" and it would be "a spirited duel." It appears the Victorias were more spirited than the Alerts, as they swept the three-game series.

In the 1920's there was a women's university league that included teams from Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Elizabeth Graham, the goalkeeper for the 1927 Queen's team, is acknowledged to have been the first goalie to wear a mask. It wasn't exactly designed for hockey: Graham borrowed a fencing mask. Still, she had the idea 32 years before Jacques Plante of the Montreal Canadians made his more famous decision to protect his face.

Women's hockey in the 1930's saw the remarkable dominance of the Preston Rivulettes from Preston, Ontario. From 1931 to 1940, the Rivulettes won four national titles and ten Ontario championships with an astonishing record of 350-2-3. It was the heyday of women's hockey, and it was about to end.

Reverses and renewal

Following the great Depression and with the onset of World War Two, the women's game declined in Canada. While women still played the sport, organized female hockey virtually disappeared. Post-war social attitudes were very conservative, and the idea of women playing hockey was frowned upon. CCM, one of the major producers of hockey equipment, discontinued their lines of women's skates and protective gear.

The issue came into sharp focus in 1956 when it was discovered that a nine-year-old girl had been secretly playing in a boys-only league in Toronto. Abby Hoffman had cut her hair short and put her uniform on at home before heading to the rink. Her case for the right to play with boys went to the Supreme Court of Ontario, which ruled against her.

Things began to change in the 1960's, as social taboos eased and women became more forceful in their demands to play the game. Teams and leagues began to re-appear. Centennial Year 1967 saw the first Dominion Ladies' Championship held in Brampton. Though nominally a national tournament, all 22 teams were from Ontario.

The rebound in the number of women playing hockey did not go unnoticed by the commercial sector. By 1970, equipment manufacturers had resumed the production of women's gear. Five years later came the formation of the Ontario Women's Hockey Association.     

While more opportunities were opening up for women to play against women, the barriers to integrated hockey remained. In 1976 an Ontario Court ruled against 10-year-old Gail Cummings of Huntsville, Ontario, who had filed a human rights complaint after she was not allowed to enroll with a boys' team in her hometown.

But progress was being made on other fronts. 1987 saw the first unofficial women's international tournament in North York, Ontario. There were teams from Canada, the United States, Sweden, Holland, Switzerland and Japan. Canada won gold.

A world championship and an Olympic breakthrough

The stage was set, and in 1990 history was made in Ottawa as the inaugural IIHF women's world hockey championship took place. The pink-themed event drew big crowds as Canada defeated the United States 5-2 in the gold medal game.

Geraldine Heaney's acrobatic winner was reminiscent of Bobby Orr's overtime Stanley Cup winner in 1970, and became an iconic image for the women's game.

The year 1992 saw one of the more intriguing developments in the evolution of women's hockey. Twenty-year-old Manon Rheaume of Beauport, Quebec, became the first woman to sign a professional hockey contract when she joined the Tampa Bay Lightning of the NHL. Though she only played in an exhibition game and the deal was widely seen as a publicity stunt by the team, Rheaume's contract made headlines and brought considerable attention to the women's game.

Hard on the heels of that story came more meaningful news. In 1992 the International Olympic Committee announced that women's hockey would become an official Olympic sport at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan.    

Although the United States claimed the gold in Nagano, defeating Canada 3-1 in the final, the Nagano Games were a milestone for all female hockey players in their long fight for recognition and respect.

1999 saw the establishment of the National Women's Hockey League, a professional organization with 17 teams spread throughout Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan, Alberta, B.C. and Minnesota.

Trash talk

Canada avenged its loss to the United States in Nagano by taking gold at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. By this time the rivalry between the teams had become personal.

When rumours circulated in Salt Lake that the Americans had stomped on the Canadian flag prior to the gold medal game, Canadian players reacted angrily

After Canada's 3-2 win over the U.S., captain Hayley Wickenheiser sarcastically wondered if the Americans would like the flag signed. 

Though the stomping rumour turned out to be false, the incident demonstrated that not only had women's hockey arrived, it now had some serious trash talk.

Hayley Wickenhesier was back in the headlines a year later when the Shaunavon, Saskatchewan native signed a contract with HC Salamat, a second-division men's pro team in Finland. Wickenheiser played 12 games, recording one goal and three assists. They were the first points scored by a woman in a men's professional hockey league.

Not long after Wickenheiser's arrival, Salamat was promoted to the Finnish first division. Her ice time was reduced significantly, and she decided to leave the team. Nevertheless, women's hockey could chalk up another notable, if somewhat short-lived breakthrough.

Swedish surprise

As women's hockey rebounded in North America, it was also undergoing something of a renaissance in Europe. The IIHF had organized a women's European championship in Germany in 1989, and followed up in 2004 with a European Women's Champions Cup for club teams. Sweden won the first four tournaments, a sign of things to come.

When the 2006 Olympic Winter games opened in Turin, Italy, Time magazine wrote that it was "inevitable" the gold medal game in women's hockey would once again be a Canada-U.S. affair. There were many who questioned the validity of a competition in which all but two countries were also-rans, and raised the larger issue of whether women's hockey belonged in the Olympics.

But the skeptics were in for a shock. In the women's semi-final the Americans were upset by the surprising Swedes 3-2 in a shootout. It was the first time Sweden had advanced to a gold medal game in international women's hockey. Team Canada brought the ecstatic Swedes back down to earth by defeating them 4-1 in the final, but the point had been made.

Today Hockey Canada runs an international mentorship program aimed at strengthening the women's game outside North America,. It provides coaching assistance and direction to countries that are still trying to build competitive women's teams.

Going pro?

While women's hockey has had success getting attention on the Olympic and international levels, it continues to struggle in the attempt to establish a professional league. The National Women's Hockey League folded in 2007, although it quickly resurrected itself as the smaller Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL.)

In a gesture of support for the women's game, and with a nod to her predecessor Lord Stanley of Preston, former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson donated a trophy to represent supremacy in women's pro hockey. The first Clarkson Cup was won in 2009 by the CWHL's Montreal Stars.

The Olympic Winter Games returned to Canada in 2010, and Canadian athletes won a record 26 medals. 14 of those were gold, including the one earned by Canada's women's team in a 2-0 victory of the United States. The post-Vancouver high renewed hopes that the women's game might finally get some traction at the professional level.

The CWHL opened the 2012 season with five teams: Toronto, Brampton, Montreal, Calgary and Boston.  The NHL helps support the teams in Toronto and Calgary, and the league also hired Val Ackerman, former commissioner of the Women's National Basketball Association, as a consultant on women's hockey.

Ackerman has been quoted in the New York Times as saying the women's game has "real potential to grow," but may never reach the levels of women's basketball and soccer.

What cannot be doubted is the growth in participation since that first women's world championship in Ottawa 23 years ago. In 1990, female hockey registration in Canada was just over 8,000. The most recent figures show that in 2012, it had surpassed 87,000.

That's a number that would both surprise, and please, those eight women who faced off on a cold March day in Ottawa 124 years ago.

History on women's hockey (Photo: Hockey Canada)

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(Photo: Hockey Canada)
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