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.