Thursday, November 24 2022

Young players perform drills during the Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association Youth League Skills Practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in March 2022

Cole BURTON

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In Canada, hockey is king but there are few queens. In many regions, women’s teams do not exist and there is no women’s professional league. But many are fighting to change that.

“The next five years will catch up with the last 15. I think now is the time,” said Daniele Sauvageau, former Canadian national team coach and now director of the high performance center.

“We’re going to see changes and more exposure, probably more women’s sports on TV than we’ve seen,” she added.

It’s quite a paradox that despite another Olympic gold medal in Beijing, Canadian female hockey players are still not very visible in their country and hockey remains primarily a male sport. Women still represent less than 20% of players in Canada (less than 10% in Quebec).

The introduction in 2017 of a form of salary in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) could have marked a turning point. But barely two years later, the announcement of its bankruptcy put an end to the professionalization movement that seemed to have begun.

“We come back to the fore with the Olympic Games. But everything has to be redone every four years,” said Marie-Philip Poulin, captain of the Canadian team and three-time Olympic champion.

The latter founded, with other Canadian and American players, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Their goal: to create a cross-border league where female athletes can be paid like professionals without having to work on the side.

“We believe in it. We are fighting to create a league not only for ourselves, but for the next generations of players. It takes patience,” she added.

In the women’s clubs, the girls know little about these champions.

“There’s always the perception that only boys play hockey, but I think that’s started to change now,” said Kim McCullough, manager of a women’s hockey club in Toronto.

Jenny Miller hugs her daughter Olivia’s skates before Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association youth league practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in March 2022

Cole BURTON

According to a recent poll, over 92% of Canadians believe that girls should be encouraged to play sports as much as boys, but over 33% still consider certain sports not suitable for women.

Over the past few years, “we’ve seen growth on many levels, which I think is great. The more players we can sign, the better it is for our sport,” added McCullough, wearing a red Team Canada cap.

On the ice, beginners aged 7 to 14, green or pink jerseys on their backs, skated at top speed from one end of the rink to the other, back and forth, sometimes falling, under the watchful eye of their parents, who capture the moment in images on their smartphones behind the safety glass that surrounds the ice rink.

Jamie Bliss, 43, joined his daughter Kira, 12, in training: “It’s great to have all the girls on the ice but also to have female coaches. I think it’s great for them to see other girls and women coaching them, cheering them on, it really helps build their confidence.”

Having a role model is what motivated 10-year-old Hallae. “I was inspired by my dad’s girlfriend, she did a lot of hockey,” she said, adding that she loved the sport.

Young female players listen to instructions during their Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in March 2022

Cole BURTON

At this girls’ club in Toronto, many say it makes them more comfortable.

“It’s easier because sometimes some boys can be mean when you’re wrong,” eight-year-old Riley said.

But not all provinces offer the opportunity for girls to play on women’s teams to discover hockey. In Quebec, most of the time, girls are integrated into boys’ teams.

A recent report, commissioned by the government of Quebec on the hockey system of the French-speaking province, dealt in particular with the promotion of women’s hockey and recommended better supervision of the development and career of players. And for more women in key positions within Hockey Quebec.

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