Sunday, November 21, 2010

My Musings from the Wickenheiser Hockey Festival

Hayley Wickenheiser at an on-ice skills lesson. Photo credit: Dave Holland via Facebook

The Wickenheiser International Women's Hockey Festival, held at Burnaby 8 Rinks from November 18-21, 2010, was a coming together of female hockey players of all ages and skill ranges from across Canada, the US, and even a team from the Czech Republic to participate in competitive on-ice games, skills clinics, special activities, as well as autograph sessions with some of their hockey heroes. The festival also provided hockey parents with an opportunity to engage in round table discussions with past and present national team coaches and players as well as tournament host and international star Hayley Wickenheiser's own parents to address issues related to the game their daughters are playing. The planning of this festival was a massive undertaking and it was an incredible and unique opportunity for these young girls and their parents to learn from the best and to make sure that their daughters are being given everything they need to make their hockey experiences as positive as possible.

It was a great honour for me to be a volunteer at this event. I'm proud to say that I didn't faint and I didn't act like a blithering idiot when Hayley walked into the room (although I was a little woozy!). It was an amazing experience that I will never forget and it reinforced my belief in two things: the power of sport and the power of passion. It made me feel like I was contributing in a small way to Hayley's efforts of growing the game globally. I observed several amazing things during my weekend at Wick Fest and would like to offer up some of my thoughts on what I experienced.

1. Hayley Wickenheiser is an incredible human being: Prior to meeting her I had been told by many that Hayley was a really down-to-earth person who hadn't let her amazing international success get to her head at all. I found this out for myself when, upon walking into the autographs room, the first words she said to me were "thank you for taking the time to help out at this event." Watching how she engaged with her young fans (some of whom were in tears at the prospect of getting to meet her) was amazing. She treated each fan like they were her own child. She initiated conversations with them and happily autographed as many items as they requested. She was happy to let anyone and everyone hold her gold medal (which was beautiful and very heavy!) and within a few minutes of being around her she began to feel more and more like a friend! The elation on the faces of the young (and old) girls and boys who got to meet her was evident and you could tell how inspired these kids were.  For them to see their hero conduct herself with so much humility will set a great example for how they should behave when they have similar successes in their respective lives. And that lesson is one that people of all ages could use from time to time right!?

2. Hayley genuinely cares about any and every player who laces up the skates: I know, I know I sound like a broken record raving about Hayley here! I'll try to stop but it's hard when you've just watched a 4-time Olympic medalist, University of Calgary Dinos forward, student, and mom devote so much of her time, effort, and resources towards getting young girls on the ice. And despite all that was required of Hayley this weekend (she was all over the place and yet somehow managed to update all her fans on the festival via her Twitter and Facebook accounts!) she still got on the ice and surprised a few teams during their skills sessions, she tried to watch as many games as she could, and she took every opportunity to talk to young girls about their teams. When festival participants asked to have jerseys or sticks signed she asked them what the score was in their last games, and she made sure that everyone had a positive experience interacting with her. At one point, a team of young girls was warming up with a brisk jog before their game and their route took them right through the autograph room. "HI HAYLEY!!" the girls blared as they ran through the crowd of autograph seekers. "Hi girls, good luck!" hollered Hayley with a laugh. In making herself so approachable, Hayley has given these girls a wonderful memory of their involvement in hockey and you can tell that she cares and wants everyone to have as much fun as they can in this sport.

3. Wick Fest is proof of how much the sport has grown: When I was younger I spent countless hours at 8-Rinks as a figure skater.  I dreamt of playing hockey and, had I seen a girls' team playing there, I would have switched sports in a heartbeat.  I never saw girls playing hockey so I assumed it couldn't be done. Not even 10 years since those days, the arena has been taken over by more than 700 young female players who are running wild and having the time of their lives.  The fact that Hayley chose B.C as the location of this event is huge because we are behind other provinces when it comes to our development of the women's game.  This will hopefully put B.C on the same track as Alberta, Ontario, and Quebec.  The front entrance of 8 Rinks should have had one of those "NO BOYS ALLOWED" signs on it because this weekend was for the girls and they were taking advantage of it! The girls had the run of the place for sure and it was a great mark of how far women's hockey has come in such a short time.  Pink equipment and long ponytails sticking out of helmets is becoming a norm on the ice and you know what? It looks good out there!

Team Kladno from the Czech Republic with their opponent the Richmond Ravens. Photo credit: Hayley's Facebook
4. The calibre of hockey at Wick Fest was elite: Technically, IOC President Dr.Jacques Rogge is a much more powerful and accomplished person than I am so I shouldn't really be insulting him in my blog, but perhaps before he threatened the sport of women's hockey with expulsion from the Olympics because of lopsided results he should have come and taken a look at the calibre of play at Wick Fest.  This was hockey being played at the highest level and it was a treat to watch. The game has become more physical over time. I noticed that girls were playing the body a lot more and refs were not penalizing them for it.  Players were being crunched by hard hits along the boards and were popping right back up and getting back into the play. Even the younger players who were not as strong and fast as the older ones were still fundamentally sound in their reads and their positioning. They were responsible in their own zone, many of them had wicked shots, and the goalies were displaying amazing reflexes and agility.  This year's Wick Fest featured only one team from Europe - a team from Kladno, Czech Republic that scrounged together the funds to participate thanks to some hard work and a generous donation from NHL goalie Ondrej Pavelec. The Czech team has been the talk of the tournament because it is so exciting to see the effort they took into making sure they could be here. And guess who ended up winning Midget Tier I of the tournament? Yup it was Kladno and they did it in convincing fashion - a 4-0 final score over the Kelowna Rockets. They won the tournament but they also won over a lot of hearts. Moral of the story? The talent exists globally. It just has to be discovered, supported, and harvested.

5.Women's hockey is a family: One of the hardest parts about being a figure skater was that it was very much an individualistic sport. The mindset was one that didn't encourage team work or gamesmanship because it always pitted one skater against another. Hockey is a family; it is one single, cohesive unit. While I'm sure there are politics and internal issues at higher levels (as there are in any sport), Wick Fest actually looked like a big family reunion. I had a great time talking to young players and their parents and it was great to meet new people through that common bond of hockey. At one point, a young boy asked me, "if girl hockey players can't grow playoff beards what do they grow?" The question made me chuckle and luckily I was spared having to think of an appropriate answer by his mom who answered for me! Parents told me about the experiences they'd had with their daughters playing hockey, I told them about my experiences of not being able to play at a young age, and it was a great way to just immerse myself in the greater hockey family.  One parent told me that she gave her daughter the choice of getting an autograph from former Vancouver Canuck Trevor Linden or from Hayley. Her daughter's response? "Who is Trevor Linden!?" For young girls of this generation, Hayley is their idol and Hayley is who they aspire to be like. There are some truly great Canadian hockey families out there - parents who work hard to put their kids through a sport that isn't cheap, superstars who reward them for their efforts by organizing events such as Wick Fest, and players who work hard and develop into great characters through hockey.

Observing the happenings at Wick Fest was an eye-opener into the very bright future of this sport. But there were a few things that I would like to see more of in the future:


1. More female coaches behind the benches: While the ice at Wick Fest was dominated by girls, the benches were mainly occupied by hockey dads. It would be great to see a mix of moms and dads behind the bench. In talking with moms in the stands I know for a fact that they have a great understanding of the game. Our last two national team coaches - Danielle Sauvageau and Mel Davidson - have been women, so certainly at the grass roots level moms should be giving it a shot too!

2. Increased international participation: One of the tournament organizers mentioned that next year, Wick Fest is hoping to have as many as 10 teams from outside Canada and the USA participate in the festival. This would be fantastic because, as the Czech team has shown us, talent exists globally. I think international participation can be encouraged by having lower tournament fees for those team that are travelling from further away. As local teams don't have to pay for airfare and hotel rooms, perhaps they could pay a bit more in tournament fees so that teams from Europe find it a little more affordable. Also, billeting is one of the oldest and richest traditions in hockey. It would be a great gesture to have local families host international players as billets for the weekend of the Wick Fest so that these players would be spared the cost of hotel rooms.  And what better way to build friendships around the world!

The 2010 Wickenheiser Festival provides many reasons to be optimistic about the future of the sport. By taking this effort, Hayley is changing lives and cultivating future superstars who will have to fill her very large shoes. She and all the pioneers of women's hockey should be proud of how far they have brought the sport to date and the rest of us should be ready to do whatever we can to help develop the future of Canada's national pass time and passion, here and around the world.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pioneers of women's hockey get their moment in the spotlight

James and Granato at the HHOF induction ceremony

"It's going to be great for hockey, it's going to be great for women's hockey and it's going to be great for women in sports." - Angela James
As much as women's hockey has grown in the past decade, the NHL, the IIHF, and all other governing bodies of professional hockey are still dominated by men. This was evident to me when 2010 Hockey Hall of Fame (HHOF) inductees Angela James and Cammi Granato stepped onto the ice at the Air Canada Centre last Saturday prior to the Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Buffalo Sabres game for a ceremony to celebrate their inductions. As they walked onto the red carpet they were welcomed by members in the Selection Committee which includes the likes of Scotty Bowman, Pat Quinn, and Dick Irvin - hockey royalty! There are no women on this panel and there was not a single woman on that ice surface. Even the ice crew were guys! In a team's championship picture with the Stanley Cup how many women are in it? Maybe one or two but they hide in the background and some look like they're not even sure if they should be there.  That is why the thought of James and Granato being enshrined permanently in the Hall is overwhelming, amazing, and yet so satisfying and reinforcing for women in sports. Their inductions is proof to us that we deserve the same rights as men when it comes to sports (and life for that matter!) and that if we have a dream to be somebody in a sport we should chase it to the highest level we can.

The inductions of James and Granato are liberating for a sport that is still defending itself from criticism and that is still fighting for its place in the world's greatest event - the Winter Olympics. But as much as it is a big victory for the sport itself, it is also a great victory at a very personal level for both inductees. The HHOF is a world away from where Angela James grew up - in the housing projects of Toronto where she faced discrimination because of her gender as well as her colour (James' father was black and her mother was Caucasian).  She was kicked off of boys' teams when they found out she was a girl and she was told she wasn't allowed to play the sport she loved.  She soldiered on until she made the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association league at age 14 and the Canadian National team shortly after.  Granato grew up in a household that was full of hockey playing brothers but she too faced the discrimination of being a girl. Like James, she continued to work hard and captained the United States team to a gold medal in the sport's inaugural Olympic Games in 1998 as well as a silver in 2002. Granato was the face of US women's hockey and the heart and soul of the national team when, suddenly and unceremoniously, she was cut from the 2006 roster. The decision rocked the team and brought her illustrious career to an abrupt end. For both James and Granato, their inductions are a form of justice for all those years where they were told "you can't do it."

It is a great honour for me to be able to say that I got to witness the first ever induction of women into the HHOF.  And if, by some miracle, Angela James and/or Cammi Granato ever read this blog I would like them to know one thing:

I would like them to know that I am proud - proud not only of the fact that they are the first women to be inducted into the HHOF, but proud also of the fact that they fought for what they loved to do. Every revolution in the world starts with a grassroots movement by a few brave souls.  Angela and Cammi are it.  They are the pioneers of modern day women's hockey.  And while they are basking in the glory of being HHOF inductees today, I know that the events that transpired in their respective careers to get them here have not always been glamourous.  There is no glamour in being told you can't play the sport you love because of your gender.  There is no glamour in being cut from the team to which you gave your heart and soul.  But through this induction they give hope - hope to girls and women who, prior to this, maybe didn't believe in themselves or who felt that they couldn't achieve their dreams because they weren't going to be given the same opportunities as their male counterparts.  Through this induction they have given the rest of us a certain confidence not only in sports but also in life.  I want them to know that in changing the face of hockey they have also, in a small but significant way, changed the world.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Farewell to the founders: Celebrating Team Canada's Kellar, Kingsbury, MacLeod, and Sostorics

Proud champion and mom Becky Kellar, with Colleen Sostorics to her right
“While the success that they have all achieved on the ice will stand the test of time, we must also recognize the role that they have played and will continue to play in growing women's hockey in Canada and around the world, as great role models and ambassadors.” - Bob Nicholson
The end of another Olympic year means changes are once again on the horizon for the Canadian National Women's Hockey team.  This week Hockey Canada annouced the retirements of Becky Kellar, Gina Kingsbury, Carla MacLeod, and Colleen Sostorics - all members of our Vancouver 2010 gold medal winning women's hockey team.  As more players from their generation start to retire it signifys the end of an era.

In the same way that hockey fans of the mid-50's to late-70's will always think of legends such as Jean and Henri Beliveau, Dickie Moore, Doug Harvey, Bernie "Boom Boom" Geoffrion, Jacques Plante, Guy Lafleur, Yvan Cournoyer, Ken Dryden, Peter Mahovlich, Steve Shutt, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, and Larry Robinson as being "THE Montreal Canadiens" I will always think of players like Kellar, Kingsbury, MacLeod, and Sostorics as being "THE Canadian women's hockey team."  You see, I'm sure that when young boys used to sit in front of the TV back in the days of the Montreal dynasty teams it was through watching those games that a love of hockey was kindled.  It was during those moments of listening to the legendary Danny Gallivan call the games that these young boys would have closed their eyes and pictured themselves out there with their heroes.  And that is how the spirit of hockey was born and maintained in the next generation of young Canadians.

For me and for so many other young girls all over the country, Cassie Campbell, Danielle Goyette, Vicky Sunohara, Geraldine Heaney, Sami Jo Small, and the four newest retirees of the national team are our Richards, our Beliveaus, our Lafleurs, and our Drydens.  Even though these players are not the first women to don skates and a helmet, to me they will always be the "founding mothers" of my sport.  It was them who I watched on TV at the Olympics, them who made me realize that women can play this male-dominated sport at a high level, and them who kindled my love for the game and my belief in my own passion.  It is with a great deal of pride that we bid them farewell.

Becky Kellar leaves the national team after being a member for 13 years.  She is one of four players to have participated in all four Olympics Games thus far (1998, 2002, 2006, and 2010).  Along with her four Olympic medals (three gold and one silver), Kellar also won four World Championship gold medals in 1999, 2000, 2001, and 2004.  While Kellar is leaving the national team she will continue to play for her club team - the Burlington Barracudas of the CWHL.  A former Brown University student, Kellar is the mom of two sons Owen and Zach, not to mention all the players she parented and mentored during her career!

Gina Kingsbury joined the national team in 2000.  Since then she has won two Olympic gold medals (2006 and 2010) and three World Championship golds (2001, 2004, and 2007).  In 116 international games, Kingsbury tallied 75 points (30 goals, 45 assists), which puts her at 13th on the list of all time Canadian point getters.  Kingsbury will continue to be involved in hockey, specifically as an assistant coach with the female hockey program at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton, B.C.  This will be a fantastic addition to the program as the province of B.C is still looking for it's first player to make the national team!

Carla MacLeod spent 7 years with the national program from 2003-2010.  She was cut from both the '03 and '04 World Championships roster but showed incredible resiliency and made the team in 2005.  Like Kingsbury, MacLeod was a proud member of both the 2006 and 2010 gold medal winning Olympic teams.  She also won gold at the Worlds in 2007.  MacLeod has been named to the media all-star team twice in international hockey - at the 2006 Olympics and 2007 Worlds.    She is already serving as an assistant coach with the Mount Royal University female hockey program and she may even try her hand at broadcasting in the future!

Colleen Sostorics has patrolled the Team Canada blue line since 2001.  In addition to her three Olympic gold medals (2002, 2006, and 2010) and her three Worlds gold medals (2001, 2004, and 2007), Sostorics leaves the game as one of the highest scoring defenceman in Canadian history.  With 14 goals and 43 assists in 119 games played, she trails only Canadian legends Geraldine Heaney and Therese Brisson on the all time list.  At the young age of 30, Sostorics still has a lot to offer the sport and will continue to be involved in various capacities in the future.

Becky Kellar, Gina Kingsbury, Carla MacLeod, and Colleen Sostorics leave the national team with more gold than an East Indian bride!  Their accomplishments will leave behind some very large shoes to fill and their legacies will live on forever.  But, despite this, it is not without a heavy heart that I bid farewell to the women who, as the Vancouver 2010 theme song says, stood tall and made the world proud.  Farewell ladies.  On behalf of a proud country, I wish each of you all the luck, success, and happiness in the future.  Thank you for representing the red and white with pride.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

The common goal: Women's hockey at the World Hockey Summit

Canada's Hayley Wickenheiser and USA's Angela Ruggiero
“I would love nothing more than for every boy and girl have an opportunity to play the greatest game in the world.” - Angela Ruggiero

There's was something slightly ironic for me when I heard that Hayley Wickenheiser and Angela Ruggiero would be coming together to speak about women's hockey at the World Hockey Summit this week in Toronto.  Here are two members of rival national hockey teams - 6 months ago they stepped onto a sheet of ice in Vancouver with only one goal in mind: to physically dominate and outscore each other and claim supremacy in women's hockey on the world's biggest stage.  Now, only half a year later, here they are speaking about their common passion and fighting for the same cause.  Yup that's how things roll in women's hockey.  The players of different nations can be bitter rivals but, at the end of the day, they have more in common than they do apart and those commonalities are what unite them and it might just be those commonalities that save the sport they love.  

After four days of dialogue, discussion, and debate between some of the world's greatest hockey minds, the 2010 World Hockey Summit wrapped up today in Toronto.  Analyzing hockey is a pass time here in Canada.  I think it's actually part of the cliché image that other nations have of us.  When they think about Canadians they picture us sitting in our igloos with a cup of Tim Horton's coffee in our hands sipping away as we discuss hockey and stroke our pet beavers!  It's pretty common to pass people in the streets who are analyzing the latest Canucks game, mockingly wondering when the Leafs will snap their 43-year Cup drought, or even wondering how our World Junior Team will do this year.  In the NHL, the league's brass are always thinking about ways to improve the game.  This Summit was not breaking new ground nor was it new territory.  It was merely a way to formally and publicly convey some thoughts for the future of the league and its players.  Even for international hockey, the Summit was important but not critical.

For women's hockey, though, this was a lifeline; an opportunity to address the problems and the needs of the sport in the presence of the greatest minds in hockey - minds who can help the women do something about the state of their sport.  The Summit was more important to the women's program than to any other that was included in the agenda.  It was therefore appropriate that the women's hockey panel consisted of respected players and coaches who see the challenges and fight the obstacles everyday.  Keynote speaker Hayley Wickenheiser (player - Canada), and panelists Angela Ruggiero (player - USA), Mel Davidson (coach - Canada), Mark Johnson (coach - USA - (yes the Miracle on Ice Mark Johnson!)), Arto Sieppi (female hockey director - Finland), and Peter Elander (coach - Sweden) didn't mince words when talking about the problems facing the sport and what can be done about it.  Ruggiero and Wickenheiser brilliantly described their journeys in hockey.  You could tell just by listening to them that they wanted to keep the dream alive for young girls all over the world.  Sieppi candidly admitted that when he was approached before the 1998 Olympics to take on the position of assistant coach for the Finnish women's hockey team he immediately said no.  Why?  In his opinion "women could not skate" and "were not athletes."  After turning down the job several more times Sieppi finally relented and agreed to get involved.  Today he is one of the greatest advocates for women's hockey and is probably one of the main reasons that Finland's national team won bronze in Vancouver.
"I've been on (the women's hockey) road for 12 years now and I don't have a single regret," Sieppi said. "There is no difference in hockey -- girls or boys -- it's hockey; the greatest game."
 It was encouraging to know that people were sticking up for the sport.  Still, I couldn't help but think that it wasn't enough.  Everything in our world is controlled by money.  No amount of hard work or determination is enough if you don't have funding.  Women's hockey is a prime example of this.  The Calgary Oval Xtreme of the Western Women's Hockey league is not in operation this year because of budget cuts at the Oval.  It would take $160,000 to run the team for the 2010-2011 season.  NHL players have cars in their garage that are more expensive than that.  Heck, Ray Emery's jewelery probably costs more than that!  And yet the team that has produced our last two Olympic team captains and is home to some of the game's best players will not be operating this season because they don't have that money.  Women's hockey is a victim of a lack of funding and the situation will not improve unless this changes.

It was, therefore, a relief for many when NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly divulged that the league does have women's hockey on it's radar and that they do recognize that they will have to contribute and help the women's game out.  If the women's hockey leagues can work with the NHL to form a professional league here in North America it will attract the world's best players.  Women's hockey will gain more exposure and there will be a place for it's stars to develop and perfect their games.  It is not an overnight solution but it provides hope.  The NHL needs to get its players and its teams to support the women's teams.  And for NHL personalities like Sidney Crosby and Mario Lemieux there should be a personal investment in helping out the women.  Crosby's sister Taylor is a goaltender with dreams of playing on the national team and Lemieux's daughter Stephanie is a left winger with similar aspirations.  Even Atlanta Thrashers' defenceman Tobias Enstrom has a sister, Tina, who is on the Swedish national team.  A professional league formed with the help of the NHL is, I'm sure, the ultimate goal for advocates like Wickenheiser and Ruggiero.

Women's hockey has grown leaps and bounds in the last two decades.  The athletes and the sport are too good to just be dropped off the radar.  We haven't come all this way to give up now.  We are taking small steps towards where we want to be.  Female hockey players will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame starting this year, the Canadian Women's Hockey League held their first ever draft this summer, and the ladies finally have their own version of Lord Stanley - the Clarkson Cup (given to the league by former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson) is the coveted trophy that young girls will hopefully grow up dreaming of hoisting.  The calibre of hockey is growing too.  Each generation of players is better than the one before it - in the same way that Crosby is better than Gretzky the women's game in North America is showing similar progress.  As an example, younger Olympians like Tessa Bonhomme, Marie-Philip Poulin, and the Lamoureux sisters showcase a much higher skill level than the likes of Danielle Goyette, Angela James, and Cammi Granato.  This is encouraging and we need to build on this.  We are fortunate to have so many superstar players who are willing to fight for equality in the sporting world.  Without them we wouldn't be here right now and, when we finally have a professional women's league and we are no longer fighting for support, they will go down as the legends who made it possible for young girls to fulfill their dreams. But now that the World Hockey Summit has highlighted what needs to be done the responsible parties need to take action immediately.  If Sochi 2014 doesn't showcase better quality hockey from European nations there won't be much anyone can do to save the sport from being cut.

Society likes to promote events by making them sound like battles - one vs. the other, Crosby vs. Ovechkin, Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin, Canada vs. USA, etc.  But the amazing thing is that, when it comes to hockey, Sid and Ovi, Taylor and Tyler, and Canada and the USA are all working towards the same thing: showcasing the game at the highest level so that it can open doors to facilitate global growth of the sport.  The same is true for women's hockey.  There will always be stages on which to showcase the rivalries that exist within the sport, but the 2010 World Hockey Summit showed that now more than ever is the time: now is the time for the greatest minds of hockey to unite, broaden their goals, to come together and provide the tools for the women.  If they can provide the stage I can guarantee that women's hockey will respond with a performance of a lifetime in Sochi and beyond.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Igniting the passion one girl at a time

I always love the video clips that CBC's Hockey Night in Canada shows after the Stanley Cup has been awarded where players and coaches from the winning team introduce themselves and then state their hometowns and who their favourite hockey players were when they were kids.  It makes me ask myself - if I was asked to participate in a feature like that who would I name as my favourite player?  The obvious choices - Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman - come to mind as well as some less than obvious ones.  But even as I run through the Lindens, the Odjicks, and the Sakics of the league I realize that as a kid I never worshiped one individual player.  There was never a player whose jersey I had to have, whose posters covered my bedroom wall, and whose on-ice actions I always had to follow. 

I never developed a "worshiping" for a player until 2002 when I was 13 years old.  That is when, while flipping through the TV channels one night, I came across an Olympic hockey game between Canada and the USA.  I watched for a few minutes and noticed that, while the players were a little slower than what I was used to watching, the caliber of play was still pretty good.  At a stoppage in play the TV zoomed in on Canada's captain and the commentator mentioned her contributions to a local hockey program.  HER contributions?  As in female?  That's when I found the player whose jersey I had to have, whose posters had to cover my bedroom walls, and whose on-ice actions I had to follow.  Cassie Campbell became the mentor I'd been looking for.  With every touch of the puck I became mesmerized by the game and my respect for Campbell and her team mates grew.  These were women who had defied all odds to live the dream of being professional hockey players.  They were everyday Canadian girls just like you and me - simple, hardworking, and different from the stereotypical makeup-wearing, anorexic looking girls that society expects us to be.  In the span of that one game I went from not even knowing about women's hockey to suddenly being able to close my eyes and picture myself out there with them.

That game, of course, was the women's hockey gold medal game at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City - the first Olympics in which our country's national women's team won gold.  I still remember an emotional Hayley Wickenheiser, hair drenched in sweat, tears streaming down her face, gold medal around her neck saying in her post-win interview "The Americans had our flag on their floor in the dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it. We are so happy."  Shortly afterward Captain Canada in tears herself said, ""I feel so dumb sitting here crying but I really can't explain how this feels to me right now.  It's been four long years of thinking of that disappointment in '98 and finally bringing the gold medal home to the country where it belongs, we deserve it."  To see hockey players showing such emotion, to see them wanting to win not for the money but for the glory and for the love of the game, to see them bleeding red and white was like looking at myself in a mirror.  I felt an instant connection with these women whom I'd never even met.  I knew in that moment that I had found my heroes.

The next 8 years, for me, became defined by that gold medal win.  The effects of it were instantaneous.  Suddenly I saw ads for female hockey leagues at the local rinks, the hockey shops started carrying female-specific equipment, and most importantly, there was a slight shift in the attitudes of the general public where people began to realize that women can play hockey too.  The attitudes of women like myself began to shift too.  Suddenly I realized that it was okay to be different, that it was okay to have a passion which wasn't the most "womanly" (whatever that means!), and that it was possible to chase a dream while still keeping up with the responsibilities that come with being a woman.  I was able to join recreational leagues where I still play today and where new dreams were born and fulfilled.  The greatest learning lessons and some of the the best moments of my life have come from hockey and for that I will be forever grateful.  Looking back now though, I still feel that 2002 was a missed opportunity for me.  Had I pursued my dream more aggressively and not been so hung up on how it would affect my academics or what would happen if I failed, I think I would have been able to wear the red and white too.  

Unfortunately it was not meant to be, so now my role in women's hockey is different.  I can take advantage of cyberspace and do what I can to tell my story in the hopes that it will make people realize that cutting the sport from the Olympics and giving up on it will lead to more unfulfilled dreams for other young girls.  Women's hockey and women's sports in general are here to stay.  They are a part of the changing cultural norms in the world where females are becoming career oriented and joining male counterparts in the workplace.  Let's keep in mind that over 80% of the medals won by Canada at both the '06 Torino games and the '10 Vancouver games were won by women.  If women's hockey is removed from the Olympics it will eventually make its comeback 5,10 or 15 years down the road.  But in that time we will have lost an entire generation of potential superstars.  We will lose the legacies of Campbell, Wickenheiser, and all the ladies who have been a part of my life, and all the progress that has been made thus far will be lost.  It is up to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the national hockey federations of each country to come together and give the game a chance.  This is not a time to threaten the sport or to point fingers about why we are in this situation where Canada and the USA are the only two competitive nations.  This is an opportunity to come together, use the superstars to devise a game plan, and give the sport and its athletes the resources they need to be successful.  All over the world right now there are young girls waiting to be inspired.  Let's appeal to them and ignite the passion within.

On that rainy Vancouver evening in 2002 when Cassie Campbell stood arm-in-arm with her team mates and sang O Canada as the maple leaf was raised to the rafters I knew what my answer would be if CBC ever wanted to do a feature on who my favourite hockey player was.  Let's make sure that future generations of female players have an answer to their question too.