As Sean Kelly calmly laced up his daughter Catherine’s skates rink side, the urgency of the 30 minutes that preceded the family’s arrival at Iceland Sports Arena in Mississauga, Ont., had long been forgotten.
Catherine’s house league game that morning had been delayed, so after the Peewee goalie led her team with the Burlington Girls Hockey Club to a 3-2 win, she and her dad would have to hurry to make her 2 p.m. game 40 kilometres away.
“All we did was take off her skates and her pads,” says Sean. “She kept most of her equipment on and I drove like a maniac to get here.”
Ernie Banks may have been talking baseball, but many girls on Saturday were all too happy to play two if it meant being a part of The Long Game.
The rink in Stephenville, N.L., hosted a pancake breakfast before dropping the first puck on an event that would see more than 2,000 players on 98 teams play 49 games across five divisions. Fifteen hours later, the staff turned out the lights in Whitehorse, Yukon, the game having made its way through nine provinces and three territories.
All five games went down to the wire, with White’s 33-25 victory over Red in the Senior division providing the day’s largest margin of victory.
In all, Red earned two wins (22-19 in Bantam and 29-28 in Midget), White scored a pair of victories (35-33 in Atom and 33-25 in Senior) and the Peewee Long Game finished in a 30-30 tie, with Red beating White 6-0 in the final leg in Vernon, B.C., to draw even.
The idea for the event – a highlight of World Girls’ Hockey Weekend in Canada – came from Fran Rider, the president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association (OWHA) and a member of Hockey Canada’s Female Council.
“We really are one family in the game,” she says. “We say it but how do you really feel it. I was trying to think how we can capture it in a tangible way because it’s sort of intangible: how can we get everybody in this country on one team.”
The players may be divided into Red and White, Rider says, but they all play for Team Canada.
“You don’t look at the other team as opposition but as teammates, too, because collectively we’re doing an activity that’s probably unmatched in any sport.”
Catherine Kelly, a Team White goaltender, was excited to be playing, but cautioned, “I might not be very good because I might be kind of tired.”
The 12-year-old, who’s played goal for four years – “I like it when I save the puck, then everyone’s cheering for me” – was supported at the rink by a handful of aunts and uncles, who were excited not only to watch her play but also to take photos of their niece giving her first hockey interview.
As Catherine got ready, the Atom girls were playing the OWHA’s first game of the day. Geraldine Heaney, a 2002 Olympic gold medallist and one of only three women in the Hockey Hall of Fame, coached her daughter, Shannon, and Team Red.
Heaney has led her daughter’s team for the past four seasons – “She still enjoys me coaching her. We’ll see how long that lasts,” says Heaney, laughing – and was proud to be a part of The Long Game for the second time.
Nobody cares about the score, she says; instead, the players get to help other provinces and skate with girls they otherwise wouldn’t get to play with. “My daughter sees some of the players she plays against during the year and they get to play on the same team. And they’re having a lot of fun, and I think that’s the biggest part.”
Heaney not only had a chance to also take part in the ceremonial puck drop – with fellow Olympic gold medallists Sami Jo Small and Natalie Spooner – but her playing number (91), as well as the one belonging to follower Hall of Famer Angela James (8), was stitched on all the players’ jerseys. By the time many of the players took to the ice, they were sporting autographed jerseys.
To participate in the OWHA portion of the event, players are asked to fill in a survey explaining why they would like to be a part of the day.
The most frequent answer: to meet new friends.
That was certainly true for Atom player Tatum Casson. She didn’t know any of the girls in her dressing room, but that was just fine with someone whose favourite thing about hockey is “being with the team.”
Mom Jill agrees.
“She’s very social, and that part of the game is really important to her and her sister.” Jill’s 11-year-old daughter also played in The Long Game.
With the girls’ games being a couple hours apart, the Cassons made a day of it at the rink, something Jill was glad to do.
“Girls’ hockey has come a long way but it still has a long way to go,” she says. “I’m happy to be a part of this. It makes girls’ hockey more visible.”
And it wasn’t just the players and parents who were proud to be there.
“To wear the (WGHW) patch today, I’m pretty honoured,” says Michel Bodaly, one of the day’s officials. “I called everyone back home and told them.”
The non-stop activity continued into the dinner hour, with the Senior players finishing off the action. The division was added this year to allow more women to join the event.
“The young girls are starting to play now,” says Rider, “but also the adult women who never had a chance to play are playing and balancing careers and families.” Next year may bring even more changes, she says. “We’re just trying to come up with ideas on how we can add more support and strength and really build women’s hockey.”