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.