by Ron Spence
Women’s hockey wasn’t officially recognized until 1982. It was the year of towel power and the B.C.A.H.A. finally threw in the towel and welcomed the “B.C. Girls” into their ranks. It had only taken six decades.
A woman’s game was first played in Ottawa in 1891. Its popularity quickly spread across Canada and by the turn of the century Vancouver sported a few teams. Nelson also had a “Ladies Hockey Club” a decade later. The Sterlings and Wanderers featured two of the Patrick sisters, Dora and Cynda and played against neighbouring towns.
One difficulty that rural teams faced was the travel between towns and villages during the winter months. Thus women’s hockey consisted mostly of inter-town rivalries rather than organized leagues. In these rural areas women sometimes played hockey with and against men who were occasionally short a player for a game.
B.C. women’s hockey peaked during the 1920s. The Fernie Swastikas (before the name became ominous) won the Alpine Cup at the Banff Winter Carnival in 1923. They defeated the Calgary Regents and the Vancouver Amazons who had won the Rocky Mountain Park Trophy the year before.
Women’s hockey continued to flourish during the 1930s when women’s athletic associations were being formed. It fell off during the 1940s, however, when women were needed for the war effort. Also during the following decade women as well as men were working rather than playing sports.
Women’s hockey regained momentum during the 1960s. In 1967 the first Dominion Ladies Hockey Tournament was held in Brampton, Ontario featuring twenty-two Ontario teams. That same year the Wallaceburg Lipstick Tournament hosted sixteen teams from Ontario and the U.S. (Port Huron). It was billed as the North American Girls Hockey Championship Tournament.
Yet, while women’s hockey had flourished east of the Rockies, it had regressed in B.C. Women in Victoria didn’t have teams let alone a league and played friday night scrub games with their husbands and boyfriends. Similarly women’s hockey in Vancouver wasn’t really organized. Women athletes who wanted to stay in shape during the winter had to organize their own rec league. In both cases shin pads and figure skates were the standard equipment used.
Women’s hockey continued to gain in popularity during the 1970s but didn’t receive any formal recognition until a decade later. The first encouragement came from the politcally correct federal government which was promoting opportunities for women in sports. This in turn prompted the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to establish a female hockey council in May of 1982. This token support rippled further to the BCAHA which five months later accepted the B.C. Girl’s Ice Hockey Association into their membership (In their defence, the BCAHA did go a step further and promote women’s hockey at the B.C. Winter Games.).
The second encouragement came from the corporate sector again in 1982. Shoppers Drug Mart sponsored the first Women’s National Hockey Championship in Brantford, Ontario which made it a sport rather than a novelty.
Next, women’s hockey jumped onto the international stage. Five years after the first Women’s National, the inaugural Women’s World Hockey Tournament was held in Ontario. This prompted the International Ice Hockey Federation to support women’s hockey which indirectly resulted in it being included in Nagano in 1998.
The impact of these developments is reflected directly in the numbers. The Brampton tournament has expanded from 22 teams in 1967 to 400 teams today. Similary B.C. women’s teams have expanded from three in the 1993-94 season to thirty-seven in 1998-99.
Yet while the numbers are growing, B.C. hasn’t achieved the team success of the provinces like Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. B.C. has never won the Abby Hoffman Cup which is awarded at the Shoppers tournament. Also British Columbia hasn’t faired well at the coveted Esso Canadian National Championships. In competitions from 1995 until 2000, B.C. has only averaged from fifth to seventh place. And during a time when Alberta has won seventeen and Ontario sixteen women’s hockey trophies B.C. hasn’t won one.
It will take a while for B.C. to establish the traditions of these other provinces where girls are indoctrinated into hockey from a young age. Most B.C. girls play the sports their mothers played like basketball, soccer and field hockey.
And B.C. women’s hockey is improving. Vancouver’s Danielle Dube has played on the Canadian Women’s National Team and was ranked the top goalie in Canada. Also the B.C. Griffins competed for the Bronze Medal against Ontario in the Esso tournament last season.
There is also a healthy Triple AAA league on the lower mainland and teams throughout the province from the Kootenays and Kamloops to Sooke have won Double AA championships.
But most important, that women’s hockey hotbed of Fernie has once again reared its head. Fernie has won three straight titles in the newly created Girl’s Midget AA league. It’s hoped they will lead British Columbia to the same success that they did seventy years ago.