Whether you believe the first recorded Canadian women’s hockey game was in Barrie, Ont., or behind Rideau Hall in Ottawa, Ont., one way or another, it all began in Ontario.
Two centuries ago in the 1890s, Ontario women were not satisfied to sit placidly on the sidelines. They
got into the mix with those early hockey games. And they’ve been raising the bar – actually, more like
pushing, the bar – ever since.
Early driving forces behind women’s hockey in Ontario were varsity teams such as the University of Toronto and Queen's University in Kingston, Ont. The popularity of women’s hockey soon became widespread and by the turn of the 20th century, women’s teams were sprouting up all over the country.
As more women took to the ice, players realized that, although long skirts had certain goaltending advantages, they were impractical. In no time, women’s teams started sporting new, more appropriate wear, such as shorter woollen skirts (and then trousers!) with long stockings, toques and gloves.
The Ottawa Alerts were one of the early teams to adopt reasonable, even stylish, hockey wear for women.
But what about safety? Knee pads and heavy gloves soon became the norm. In fact, some women played a leading role in the safety of the game. Long before Jacques Plante popularized the hockey mask, for example, Elizabeth Graham, a goalie for the Queen's University team, wore a fencing mask to protect herself in goal.
With the growing popularity of women’s hockey came the desire for competition. And Ontario was in the forefront again. In 1914, the first provincial championship was held in Picton, Ont., with six teams competing for bragging rights.
Nothing, it seemed, could stop Ontario female teams. And on , several of those teams came together to announce the forming of the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association (LOHA). The newly formed association included the Toronto Hockey League, in addition to London, Ottawa and St. Thomas clubs. The infamous Preston Rivulettes joined the LOHA in 1931.
The Rivulettes. Now they posed a bit of a problem for other women’s teams, simply because they were so good, losing only two games in 350 played. As a result, other women’s teams did not want to join the LOHA because they felt they had no chance of winning. At first, the league rearranged itself to accommodate an A league for teams with a high skill level and a B league for less seasoned teams. In the end, the LOHA was dissolved and amalgamated with the Women’s Amateur Athletic Federation in 1941.
Most unfortunately, something could, and did, stop women’s hockey skates in their tracks: the war years.
The right to play hockey, however, had been a hard-won battle, one women in Ontario and across the country were still fighting. So while many women stopped playing hockey to help with the war effort, a handful of tough-minded players would simply not give it up, keeping the hockey home fires burning.
Players like Hazel McCallion, whose dazzling speed led the three-team Montreal league during the war years. On the east coast, the Gallant sisters were among the ragtag players fostering flagging P.E.I. teams, while in the west, teams like the Moose Jaw Wildcats kept women’s hockey alive.
With every set back, women’s hockey worked harder. They had faced enormous challenges, met each one face on, and swatted them away with one deft swipe of a hockey stick. Even a world war could not extinguish the passionate flame of women’s hockey. Through sheer determination, they’d made it, though beleaguered and bruised, into the 1950s.
But after all they’d been up against, women’s hockey was dealt yet another blow: funding cuts to women’s inter-collegiate sports teams – including the great Canadian game – a training ground for many accomplished Canadian female hockey players.
Lobbied by female survivalists like Cookie Cartwright, a leader in the formation of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA), funding was eventually granted at various universities, which helped the resurgence of women’s hockey across the province. Soon, teams and leagues sprouted up across the country and the game was on again!
During the 1960s and early 1970s, teams like the Brampton Canadettes, the Kingston Red Barons and the Don Mills Satan’s Angels were making names for themselves.
And with the growing legions of women playing, came competitions, such as the Brampton Canadettes Dominion Ladies Hockey Tournament, the Wallaceburg Lipstick Tournament, Preston Tournament and Picton Tournament. Teams and players from Ontario, other provinces and even the United States came together in hockey rinks throughout the country to share their love of hockey.
As interest in women’s hockey spread again throughout Ontario, it was obvious that an organizing body was needed and in 1975, the Ontario Women's Hockey Association was formed. The OWHA is the governing body of female hockey in Ontario and promotes, provides and develops opportunities for girls and women of all abilities to play female hockey in Ontario.
While a new association did not translate immediately into more women’s hockey teams, financial support for those teams or even convenient ice time, it did provide female hockey players with a common voice.
For example, that voice, the OWHA, lobbied for and hosted the first national women’s championship in Brantford in 1982 and secured its first title sponsor – Shopper’s Drug Mart. This work by the OWHA was also critical in the formation of a national female hockey council that same year.
Following the success of the creation of a national women’s championship, the OWHA continued to follow its vision to have the game recognized at the international level with a world championship and Olympic participation.
Denied the right to host a world championship, the OWHA persevered and hosted the first Women’s World Hockey Tournament in North York and Mississauga, Ont., in 1987. Teams from Holland, Japan, Sweden, Switzerland the United States – and of course host country Canada – participated in the exciting event. Delegates from Australia, China, Great Britain, Norway and West Germany also attended.
This international tournament was the turning point for female hockey, as it was immediately followed by a European championship in West Germany in 1989 and a full world championship in 1990 in Ottawa, which hosts the official IIHF event for a second time this year in April. The lobby for inclusion into the Winter Olympic Games became a reality in Nagano, Japan in 1998, when Canada’s National Women’s Team won a silver medal. Since then, the red and white have won three gold medals at the Olympic Winter Games, including most recently at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, B.C.
Through intense competition on the ice and tireless cooperation off the ice, women’s hockey had achieved the impossible dream. It had shown the world the amazing victories that can be accomplished through international unity. Young girls throughout the world enrolled in hockey, as they had exceptional role models to follow.
While women across Canada can take pride in helping to make the female game popular around the world, Ontario and the OWHA have a special place of honour. They gave birth to women’s hockey and kept it breathing when it wasn’t fairing very well. Keep pushing the bar, girls!
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