It all started on February 11, 1891, when a reporter for The Ottawa Citizen who had caught a glimpse of a women’s hockey game wrote that some of the women, “are very swift skaters and they can dodge with the puck to equal some of the best men players.”
This was the beginning; the first-ever recorded instance of women playing the game.
Lady Isobel Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston's daughter, was the first woman to be photographed playing the game. The photos just happened to be taken at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ont., the same city that hosted the first-ever IIHF-sanctioned women’s world championship in 1990, and is now hosting the 2013 IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
It was on the natural ice rink outside of Rideau Hall that she played the game. Isobel’s father had created the rink so that he and his family could play hockey together.
Women’s hockey became popular very early on at post-secondary institutions, with teams developing at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., and McGill University in Montreal, Que., among others.
Photos from early women’s teams suggest the women played in knitted turtleneck sweaters, long skirts, gloves and hats. The long skirts they wore were, in fact, believed to be a goaltending advantage.
In 1927, Elizabeth Graham, a goalie from Queen's University, put on a fencing mask to protect her face, making her the first hockey player to ever wear a mask in a game.
In the late 1930s and 1940s, women’s hockey saw a steady decline in participation, largely due to the Great Depression and Second World War.
The lack of women’s hockey continued throughout the 1950s, but one particularly notable event occurred during these years.
Abigail Hoffman, a nine-year-old at the time, wanted to play hockey but there were no local leagues accepting girls. So, with a haircut and a lot of courage, she asked her parents to register her for the only team available: a boys’ team.
She was registered as “Ab Hoffman” and would dress at home to avoid suspicion. It was not until a tournament that required her to produce a birth certificate that her cover was blown.
Subsequently, Abby’s attempt to oppose the policy of “boys only” teams in minor hockey was ruled against by the Supreme Court of Canada. Little revival was seen until 1960. Although girls who were longing to play were still being rejected by boys’ teams, it was time for women to band together to create women’s leagues.
The 1970s were an evolutionary time period in women’s hockey, and a decade that saw many women putting together club teams throughout Canada and the United States. Women were then beginning to realize that women’s hockey was not a passing fad.
The Ontario Women’s Hockey Association or the OWHA, was formed in 1975 and was incorporated in 1981.
The first women’s world championship, although not sanctioned by the International Ice Hockey Federation, took place in North York, Ont., in 1987.
Nearly 100 years had passed, and thousands of women were playing the game, when the first fully sanctioned IIHF Women’s World Championship took place at the Ottawa Civic Centre. It began on March 19, 1990. In a battle that rages on today, Canada beat out the United States 5-2 in the final, earning the red and white the gold medal.
This year’s world championship title is still up for grabs, but in only a couple of days now, we will know which country will skate away from Ottawa with the gold medal this time.
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