womens hockey in ontario
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Women’s hockey is home sweet home in Ontario

The province was there in the sport’s international infancy, in 1987; nearly 30 years later, it welcomes a game that it helped grow around the world

Wendy Graves
January 15, 2016
To paraphrase a well-loved movie line, if you welcome it, you will build it.

Over the past 30 years, Ontario has become a rink of dreams of sorts for women’s hockey. Since holding the first women’s world championship in 1987 (an unsanctioned event), the province has hosted four IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championships, three 4 Nations Cups, three National Women’s Under-18 Championships and one Esso Cup.

This week in St. Catharines it finally welcomes the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship.

“The growth of women’s hockey has really been built around events,” says Fran Rider, president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA). “Back into even the 1960s and 70s, the game grew around tournaments because there were great distances and you really got a chance to get together.”

Nine years ago, at the first U18 women’s worlds, only eight countries could field teams. This week, as France debuts at the top level, 22 teams compete in three divisions around the world.

Developing and promoting the game, and providing a place for females to play it at the highest level, is what moves the OWHA to bid on any event it can, and motivates it to not only make it the best tournament for players but also leave a legacy behind in the community that welcomes it.

“We’ve been trying to grow the girls’ game in Huntsville and Muskoka for some time now,” says Kari Lambe, co-chair of the recently completed 2015 National Women’s Under-18 Championship. In years past recruitment meant Lambe visiting schools or talking to parents to drum up interest. Hosting the U18 nationals was a way to bring attention to girls’ hockey and drive more interest in girls themselves taking up the game.

“During the event we heard about a lot of families coming in, dads with their little girls [saying], ‘I just want her to see it,’ which is exactly what we wanted,” says Lambe. “We wanted to open the doors and have these young girls see what opportunities lie ahead for them, not just their brothers.”

Lambe points to a number of local players who have had to go to North Bay, Toronto, even St. Catharines, to play high-level girls’ hockey. “They’ve had to leave our community to get these opportunities. The legacy plan through the OWHA is to grow the sport through our area so they don’t have to leave.”

Huntsville and St. Catharines were natural bid partners, says Rider, both being communities where the OWHA wanted to increase participation in the game. The hope is they will join the list of success stories – the 1991 Ontario Winter Games in Barrie being the catalyst to establishing the Barrie Women’s Hockey Association, for one – that the province has seen when prospective players see a game in-person.

So why have events been so successful when they’ve been in Ontario?

Hospitality and nationalistic (and provincial) pride earn mentions, but it’s the quality of the players that easily earns the first star.

Cheryl Pounder played for Canada’s National Women’s Team at three Ontario-hosted events and cites the 2000 women’s worlds, played in her backyard of Mississauga, as her favourite. There was a time when she could look into the crowd and know exactly where the players’ families were sitting – basically, they were the fans. Now players like Natalie Spooner and Rebecca Johnston are household names, and spectators know they’ll see a show.

From her place behind the bench for her daughter’s Brampton Canadettes Novice B team to her position in the TSN broadcast booth, Pounder has a front-row seat to what the game has become.

“Once fans see it, we always say you drink the women’s hockey Kool-Aid and then you can’t put it down. And that’s happening.”

The province has also been the beneficiary of decisions, both when and ‘wear,’ if you will, outside its boundaries.

Before a single game was played at the 1990 world championship in Ottawa, the talk was all about the Canadian women sporting pink jerseys. By the time Canada claimed the first gold medal, talk had turned squarely to what the players were doing in those jerseys, with Geraldine Heaney soaring through the air being the lasting image of the skill and athleticism spectators could expect at a women’s hockey event. “Maybe the pink brought [fans] in, but the game kept them in,” says Rider.

The 1997 world championship in Kitchener was also a turning point, says Rider. That’s when the IIHF first sent its marketing team over. “It was also the qualifier for the first Olympic Winter Games [for women’s hockey], which brought it even greater exposure.”

What’s also helped these events thrive in the province is the homegrown talent that frequently fills the Canadian roster. At the U18 level alone, an average of nine players each year – more than one-third of the Canadian roster – is from Ontario. This year’s team has 11 players. Many of them list their provincial predecessors as their favourite female athlete – for Julia Edgar and Kristin O’Neill, it’s Brianne Jenner; Saroya Tinker and Victoria Howran say fellow blue-liner Tara Watchorn, to name a couple.

Maybe the girls sitting in the stands in St. Catharines will be the ones wearing red and white a decade from now, motivated by watching a local player like Beamsville’s Annie Berg represent her country.

“Girls want to support their heroes,” says Pounder, who recently took her girls’ team to a CHWL game that featured several U18 alumnae. “The next thing I know I’m getting pictures of posters they were putting on their bedroom walls of Jamie Lee Rattray and the girls in the league. And I thought, the girls are now their role models and this is amazing.”

“We want to produce [an event] locally and make sure we leave a local legacy,” says Bill Fenwick, event chair of the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 Women’s World Championship, “but [the OWHA is] looking at it from a provincial and national perspective and how they promote the game and leave a legacy for women’s hockey.”

That starts at home. Ontario events are all-inclusive, says Rider, bringing in players from places like Thunder Bay to participate in intermission demonstrations at events held in the southern part of the province. “There’s a real loyalty and a sense of belonging. We want everybody in the province and the country to share in these events.”

Naturally there’s a feeling of pride is seeing homegrown players succeed and Canada winning gold, but there are bigger goals in mind anytime an event comes to town.

“We really focus on building the Ontario game as strong as we can because that’s what our role is and that’s what we contribute to the national and international game,” says Rider, who in 2015 became the first person inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame for contributions specifically to women’s hockey. “But we also don’t see borders. To us it’s a universal women’s hockey team and we’re cooperating to build that team.”

For more information:

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 284-6484 

[email protected] 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada

(403) 777-4567

[email protected]

Jeremy Knight
Manager, Corporate Communications
Hockey Canada

(647) 251-9738

[email protected]

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