At the time of the first IIHF World Women’s Championship in 1990, there was no national league in Canada where players could build their skills after the tournament was over.
Today, there are two major national leagues, and two-thirds of Team Canada’s players participate in them.
The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) and the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) are providing an opportunity for Canadian female hockey players to develop and shine.
Prior to the creation of the NWHL in 1999 and the WWHL in 2004, women’s hockey careers would typically be over after they finished playing for college or university teams, unless they were gifted enough to play for the national team. Otherwise, they might just end up playing recreationally or on local men’s teams.
Now there are 12 teams across Canada to choose from. The NWHL features the Brampton Thunder, Etobicoke Dolphins, Mississauga Aeros, Montreal Axion, Oakville ICE, Ottawa Raiders, and Quebec Avalanche. Over in the WWHL, you’ll find the B.C. Breakers, Calgary Oval X-Treme, Edmonton Chimos, Minnesota Whitecaps and the Saskatchewan Prairie Ice.
“Right now, I feel the college and university programs are good for girls at that age, but we need to have something for girls to play in after that,” said Jennifer Botterill, a member of the NWHL’s Mississauga Aeros.
Currently her Aeros are battling the Brampton Thunder for the Central Division Championship, but after only one game, that series has been put on hold until after the IIHF World Women’s Championship in Winnipeg.
Joining Botterill on Team Canada are fellow Aeros teammates Cheryl Pounder, Kelly Blanchard and Sami Jo Small, plus Thunder rivals Jayna Hefford and Vicky Sunohara.
“It’s a lot of fun when you get to go out for a national team, but that only happens probably four times a season,” said Botterill. “So for us it’s really important for us to play on a good team with other players.” She feels it helps them prepare and provides them with valuable competition, and that will help the national team in the long run.
There will be six players from the Calgary Oval X-Treme of the WWHL on this year’s edition of Team Canada, four of which will make up the defensive core.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Delaney Collins, one of the four Calgary blueliners. “We have a really intensive training regime [in Calgary], and basically it’s a matter of playing with other members of the national women’s team and trying to get better all the time.”
Despite the opportunities the NWHL and the WWHL have created, there are still struggles they must face. The inaugural Clarkson Cup, donated by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson, was to have been awarded this season to the winner of a showdown between the top clubs in the NWHL and the WWHL. But due to financial reasons, that showdown was shelved for a later year.
“I think there are definitely some challenges and I think that it needs to improve,” said Botterill of the NWHL. “It has a great base, but there’s not a lot of structure or organization with it. Little things like getting the website going and just having a commissioner and someone to run it properly are steps we need to take in the future.”
Collins hopes that unifying the two leagues at some point will keep the players close together and make the hockey even more competitive.
“I think both leagues are promoting hockey across the country, but at the same time it’s going to take time,” said Collins. “Eventually it will just continue to get stronger and stronger.”