It’s a brave new world for female hockey players. On top of an increase in participants and leagues, we’re also seeing more opportunities for players than ever before, both on and off the ice. Here, we get to know the sport’s trailblazers and explore the grassroots initiatives, world firsts and recent boycott that are all geared toward the same thing: growing the game and opening new doors for female players.
Little girls faces frozen in awe as Marie-Philip Poulin signs an autograph for them says it all for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League commissioner — awareness of female hockey is growing.
“Then there is the mother that wrote us saying Natalie Spooner gave her daughter a stick after the game and she has yet to be able to take it out of her hands three days later, even as she sleeps in bed. The partnership with Girls Hockey Calgary, creating the junior Inferno program and seeing all those little girls so proud to wear that logo on their jerseys,” Commissioner Brenda Andress shared as a few examples she’s seen lately of just how awareness is growing.
That grassroots component is key, said Andress, not only to the league’s survival but to furthering other opportunities for women in the sport – from playing, coaching and reffing, to operations, whether in the CWHL, minor hockey or other leagues.
“That is exactly what the CWHL started out to do 10 years ago. The main goal is to increase grassroots, which will increase women in other hockey related positions and non-traditional jobs,” said Andress. “We now have girls wanting to grow up to be like Poulin, Caroline Ouellette, Haley Irwin, Natalie Spooner, [Laura] Fortino — all these players are phenomenal role models and young girls asking to see them and saying their names is a massive shift from 10 years ago.”
Andress attributes the shift to the work the league and the players do to break down barriers and engage with the community. This season was a breakthrough for the CWHL, with multiple games on Sportsnet, 8,100 fans turned out for the all-star game and all this comes not in a build up for Olympic hype, or just following the Olympics, where most traditional growth has come.
“We then see the Calgary Flames’ newest player in a press scrum with an Inferno hat on. How great is that? The support we are receiving from the NHL and that simple gesture is a huge step,” said Andress, referring to Curtis Lazar on his first day with the Flames.
What happens off the ice is almost as important as what is taking place on it for the league and the players.
“Our mission statement is building leaders, building dreams. It is the fabric of the league, that comes in two different forms. One is to show off their skills on the ice and two is interacting with the players by introducing them to sponsors and female leaders off the ice,” said Andress.
To ensure that growth continues in the league and in women’s sport, and to celebrate the league’s 10th anniversary, the CWHL launched the 25 for 10 Campaign, with a goal of raising $25,000 to use towards operational costs.
From the Ice, to the Bench, and Beyond
A 16-year-old Cassie Campbell-Pascall saw many of her friends quit playing hockey.
With a lack of opportunity and role models, they found other things to pursue. But Campbell-Pascall was determined to keep skating.
Pondering a teaching career while attending the University of Guelph as her competitive playing days were coming to an end, rumours of a national team kept swirling. Two Olympic gold medals (one silver) and six gold world championships later, she is thankful she stuck with the sport she loves, even though it wasn’t as accessible as it is to today’s youth.
While it is easy to get 300 girls to show up to a Scotia Bank Girls HockeyFest now, Campbell-Pascall can remember the days where it would be just her and maybe a couple of female players at hockey schools.
“That first Olympics that included women’s hockey in ’98 gave us exposure that we never had before. The U.S. winning on that stage taking the sport outside of Canada and then fighting back to win the gold at the Olympics in 2002 just elevated it even more,” she said.
Again with her playing days coming to an end, Campbell-Pascall had decisions to make. But the contacts she made, thanks to the growing exposure of women’s hockey, allowed her to stay involved in the sport.
On Oct. 14, 2006, Campbell-Pascall provided CBC Hockey Night In Canada’s first female voice in colour commentating. She was then the first woman to work on the NHL Network, and her career kept growing through appearances on CTV, TSN and The Score.
“The things I learned during my playing days — hard work, dedication, sacrificing for something I love — carried on to the next chapter in my life. I would have never thought I would have had a career in broadcasting,” said Campbell-Pascall.
A governor on the CWHL board, Campbell-Pascall also stands beside the mission to grow the grassroots of the game to give kids opportunities that were not even on her radar at that age.
Opportunities seized by former CWHL player and University of Alberta Pandas alumni Kristen Hagg, now assistant GM of the Calgary Inferno, or, Lisa-Marie Breton-Lebreux, the CWHL Les Canadiennes de Montreal assistant coach. Also a pioneer in women’s hockey, Breton-Lebreux went from an eight-year veteran CWHL career to helping the Canadiennes hoist the Clarkson Cup this season as a coach.
Four-time Olympic gold medallist and Canadiennes player Caroline Ouellette was recently named to Canada’s coaching staff for the upcoming Women’s World Championship. For her part, she points back to her time playing with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs, where she learned she could have a long future in hockey, even after she retires.
“After I was done playing for the Bulldogs, my favourite coach in the world, Shannon Miller, asked me to consider coming back as assistant coach. I did for two years and I loved it,” said Ouellette, who coached in 2012 and 2013 with the University of Concordia Stingers and returned to the coaching staff in 2016.
Ouellette wanted to pursue a career in law enforcement after college, but still had a passion to play hockey. That passion grew into a desire to pass on the same love of the game to the next generation of players.
“I think Shannon developed my desire to mentor young players. I was also fortunate enough to have one of the greatest mentors, Mel Davidson, in my life,” said Ouellette of Hockey Canada’s women’s high performance coordinator. “She was remarkable for my growth as a coach and allowing me to truly learn. She encourages current players to coach and gets us involved early on to see if that passion for coaching will develop.”
Ouellette also coached a girls team to the finals of the International Quebec Peewee Championships in Quebec City.
"Our crowds have been growing every season. We played in front of more than 6,000 at the Bell Centre, a moment I'll never forget," said Ouellette at a recent press conference.
“We need media to bring people in and we need to bring people in so media gets interested. It's the same with sponsors, which will be the difference in whether our league succeeds and thrives. I think by talking about the female game we grow it everyday.”
“Women’s hockey reaches more girls now than ever. We see how passionate they are about hockey,” Marie-Philip Poulin said in a press conference after winning the Clarkson Cup (and after picking up the league’s MVP honours, Jayna Hefford award and Angela James Bowl, shared with Brampton’s Jess Jones).
“When I won my awards last weekend, I thanked those young girls who decided to play hockey, for helping grow our game and for sharing our passion. We’re trying to be role models for them so they can grow up dreaming of playing for Les Canadiennes or the national team one day. That’s one of our goals. It’s been incredible to see how much the sport has evolved.”
More Opportunities Than Ever Before
During the 2013-14 academic year, U SPORTS (previously known as Canadian Interuniversity Sport) provided almost $16 million in athletic scholarship money.
That was double the amount from 2006-07, where $6.9 million was awarded. For women, the largest athletic scholarships were provided in basketball, volleyball and hockey.
There was a talent drain happening in Canada, with many hockey players heading to U.S. colleges, opting for the better scholarship money offered south of the border.
In 2014, U SPORTS launched a five-year pilot project to award scholarships to cover up to the cost of tuition and compulsory fees, plus room and board.
In early March, the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL) announced the addition of three new schools (Banff Hockey Academy, Delta Hockey Academy and Shawnigan Lake School) to their female prep program to bring the total to nine. As well, they have added Pilot Mound Hockey Academy to the female varsity program.
“We are bringing in programs that are established but are playing in non-traditional set-ups. We are giving them a formalized league structure but it also allows them to reduce the expensive costs to families because it will mean less travel and time away from school, while still playing at a competitive level,” said CSSHL chairperson Andy Oakes, who is also the president and director of the Okanagan Hockey Group.
The league was launched to give elite level student-athletes an opportunity to increase their skills on and off the ice and provide athletes with a high level of competition and exposure. Since adding a female division for the 2015-16 season, the CSSHL expanded the following year and split the program into prep and varsity divisions.
Oakes said the CSSHL is considering joining the female and male championship into the same week. The male championship has been hosted in Penticton for three years, and is a week-long celebration.
Players like Sarah Potomak and Emily Clark have moved through the Pursuit of Excellence and Okanagan Hockey Academy and are having success at the NCAA level. Both Potomak and Clark were recently named to the senior national women’s team that will compete at the world championship. Oakes said OHA does believe having former players and women in leadership roles is essential to the growth of the female game.
“We had Gina Kingsbury, a former Olympian, come right to us after she retired from playing to grow as a coach and pass on her experiences to our players. Delaney Collins was another coach we had for part of a season that helped her development and moved her on to elite level coaching with Hockey Canada. Over at the Edge School, you have former Olympian Carla McLeod. We have all these great players who come back and want to coach and need to be supported. We get to help them develop those skills while the players benefit from learning from their role models,” said Oakes.
While growth is always top of mind for everyone, the talent pool at elite levels also has to be respected. According to Hockey Canada, female registration has seen minor increases each year over the past decade. In 2005-06, there were 69,557 female registrants in the country. Last year, there were 87,494 female players (compared to 549,614 males), 882 more female players than 2013-2014.
Oakes, who also coaches atom and peewee female hockey in his hometown minor association in Penticton, said he has seen the sport grow in leaps and bounds at the local level.
“Three years ago, we had a gap between basically novice and bantam. We are now going into next season with teams in novice, atom, peewee and bantam. In three short years, we managed to fill all the divisions. I think in Penticton we have one unbelievable champion in Barb Main who has some really great people working with her to bring those numbers up through Try it Days, bring a friend recruitment drives, and having the women’s national team out to skate with some of the kids before the world championships in Kamloops last year. These are all just great grassroots initiatives to get kids to the rink for a fun, positive social experience,” said Oakes.
Growth on the World Stage Brings Growth at Home
From player to coaching college, the U.S. national team and the CWHL, to becoming the first U.S. female colour analyst for a women’s ice hockey game on TV at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Digit Murphy has seen all aspects of hockey.
As part of the IIHF mentorship program, she was serving as a coaching consultant with the Slovakia national women’s team. She was recently hired by Kunlun Red Star in China, as the chief coach for the country’s first professional women’s ice hockey team. Murphy is tasked with building the national youth women’s ice hockey team as they look to grow their hockey base ahead of the Beijing 2022 Olympics. She will also serve as board member for Kunlun Red Star along with former NHLers Phil Esposito, Mike Keenan, Bobby Carpenter, and others.
While it boils down to what is happening on the ice, Murphy also is a firm believer in a movement to empower females of all ages around the world.
“It’s about growing heroes, role models and leaders. It is what I have lived by in North America and now I am doing it internationally in China and with the Olympic movement behind it. I hope growth in China can happen as we build heroes, role models and leaders in women’s hockey and that it has a spillover effect to other countries,” said Murphy.
She also believes the game will continue to grow but there is only one way to get paycheques in the hands of women.
“People, sponsors have to see the benefit of women’s sport and that is what is missing. Once they see the benefit, it will open up the markets.
The thing with hockey is it is all about ice time and rink space. Resources are already scarce and now if you open that up to half the population, it becomes even scarcer. Right now, unless the business model changes you will not see huge growth in the game. We are 100 years behind the men and it is their history we have to contend with. We can’t always look to big brother and ask why they aren’t taking care of us,” said Murphy.
As co-founder of Play It Forward Sport Foundation, created to push forward gender equity in women’s sport at all levels, and the United Women’s Lacrosse League in 2016, Murphy said laying the seeds at the grassroots both at home and abroad is important.
Developing professional teams in non-traditional hockey countries could be a boost back at home, said Murphy. An addition of resources and push for women’s hockey in Asia, could in turn encourage countries like Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia to advance their female athletes said Murphy.
“Hats off to the CWHL and Hockey Canada’s Mel Davidson who really spearheaded the ‘grow the game’ vision,” said Murphy. “However there needs to be a business model that works to ensure continued growth. I believe that will not happen until other countries also recognize the significance of women’s hockey.”
Players Working Hard to Elicit Change
As you’ve all heard by now, members of the U.S. Women's National Team have also taken a stance to elicit change to help further women in hockey.
Just weeks before the IIHF Women's World Championship, members of the U.S. national women's team posted a letter via social media stating unless major change comes they would not be participating in the tournament that is being hosted in Plymouth, Michigan from March 31 to April 7.
"Specifically we have asked for equitable support in the areas of financial compensation, youth team development, equipment, travel expenses, hotel accommodations, meals, staffing, transportation, marketing and publicity," the letter stated.
The team members said significant progress will have to made on the already year-long negotiations with USA Hockey over fair wages and equitable support for them to change their minds about playing in the world championship.
"This isn't just sport specific, it is bigger than sport and we hope for women worldwide it will spark a change in 2017. We are too far behind the times," said Hilary Knight, a two-time silver medallist at the Olympics and six-time gold medallist at the world championship.
The U.S. women receive a stipend of $1,000 a month from USA Hockey, but only during the six months they are centralized as they train for the Olympics.
For the U.S. players who are not in college, they play in the National Women's Hockey League. The fledgling league, only in its second year, set out to pay the players. However, it is a measly wage in comparison to their male counterparts in the NHL. The top end of the NWHL salary is $26,000, which is the wage Amanda Kessel receives.
This season, the league was forced to ask players to cut back their wages due to lack of sponsorship support. Some players, such as Knight who plays for the NWHL Boston Pride and on the national team, have sponsors that also help support them throughout the year. Others must make personal sacrifices such as not pursuing full time careers with good wages in order to train and play hockey for virtually no money.
"I think this will definitely change the map for our sport. It's going to change the way people view the sport. I think it stinks that we have to do it this way because yes, I want to play. That is my passion. At the same time it is exciting and I was anxious to get out there and speak about the things we have been battling for so long. I have been in this program for 10 years and have kept the good face and now it's like no, these things have to change and we want people to know about it," said Knight.
A repercussion of the best U.S. women's players not attending the world championship potentially could be a significant loss in ticket sales. Canada is scheduled to play the U.S. on opening night of the championship on March 31, an event that has in years past played in front of a sold out crowd.
The world championship takes place in non-Olympic years and the U.S. are the defending gold medal winners and ranked number one in the IIHF standings.Back to Top
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