The concept isn’t something unheard of – members of Canada’s national women’s leagues, battling for supremacy at the Esso Women’s National Championship.
Teams from Calgary, Montreal and Toronto, all dotted with members of Canada’s National Women’s Team, gathering in one place to fight for one prize – the Abby Hoffman Cup.
But the playing field hasn’t always been level.
At the 2007 Esso Women’s Nationals, Nova Scotia earned a spot in the semi-finals, where it proceeded to get beat 15-0 by a Calgary Oval X-Treme team that featured Hayley Wickenheiser, Danielle Goyette and a number of other National Women’s Team members.
The bronze medal game the following day? A 13-3 loss to the Mississauga Aeros, led by national team stars Jennifer Botterill and Cheryl Pounder.
In 2008, things have changed.
When Nova Scotia takes to the ice in Charlottetown, it will join Manitoba, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island to battle for a senior women’s championship, with no fear of having to face a powerhouse club team.
The elite club teams, for the first time ever, will have a national championship of their own to play for, as the top two teams from the Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) and from the new Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) will meet for a national title.
“I think it’s a long time coming,” says Wickenheiser, a five-time Most Valuable Player and two-time gold medalist at the Esso Women’s Nationals. “Only 20 players can play on the national team, but there are a lot of other quality players in Canada that can play and could be considered for club teams that can compete against each other.”
Wickenheiser also sees a true national championship as a possible first step towards something that she feels is long overdue – a professional women’s league in Canada.
“I think that if somewhere down the line you want professional women’s hockey, it has to include more than the 20 players who play for the national team, to give them something to play for,” she says. “Having a championship like this is significant.”
Tournament organizers, and players, believe the two-championship approach in 2008 will make a difference in the level of play.
“I think they’ve made adjustments to make it better,” says Botterill, also a former Esso Women’s Nationals gold medalist. “The games are closer and everyone is in a competitive environment, so I think that’s best for everybody.”
“I think we’re at the point where women’s hockey has evolved to an elite level, and if those other provinces aren’t able to produce the players and the teams, then they should play in the second pool,” Wickenheiser says. “Nobody likes to win or lose 17-0, so for both pools to have competitive games will be entertaining for the fans.”
While the national championship is the ultimate goal, Botterill admits a friendly rivalry exists between National Women’s Team players from the eastern teams and players from the western teams.
“There is always a fun East vs. West thing, especially when we gather as a group,” Botterill says. “It’s always fun at a national championship…you want to prove yourself against your peers. I think it’s a healthy rivalry, something that brings out the best in both sides.”
Heading into the 2008 Esso Women’s Nationals, it seems to be unanimous – organizers, players and fans are all in support of the new format, of crowning a pair of national champions on March 15th.
All that is left now is for the first puck to drop. And if the opinions of some of women’s hockey’s biggest stars mean anything, it will be nothing short of exciting.
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