Team pictures, championship plaques and inspirational posters fill the walls. Trophies, newspaper clippings and even more pictures fill the bookcase. Twenty-four years of memories fill the room, and yet there is still room for more.
Welcome to the office of Les Lawton, the head coach of the Concordia Stingers women’s hockey team. Lawton has been the head coach of the team for 24 years and he can attest to the changes in the world that is women’s hockey.
Lawton has seen the ups and downs of women’s hockey at Concordia and around the world. It all started in 1982, when he was hired to run a program at Concordia well before it became an official league in the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (CIAU), which since changed its name to Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS). Lawton’s 559 victories since being hired by Concordia are the most of any women’s hockey coach in the world, according to Concordia Athletics officials. He has also coached on the world and national stage. He coached Canada to a gold medal in the 1994 world championships, which were held in Lake Placid. In the last few years he also helped the women’s hockey program in Italy get off the ground once they became the host of the 2006 Olympics. Lawton says that he still keeps in touch with many of the players and coaches from his time in Italy. The trip is one of the many examples of attempt to internationalize the game of women’s hockey to non-hockey countries.
In the last 10 years women’s hockey has seen intense growth. From its implementation as an Olympic sport to the development of several professional leagues on the upswing, women’s hockey is the fastest growing sport in Canada.
In the last 20 years, the number of girls and women playing hockey in minor hockey associations across Canada has grown substantially. It grew to 55,000 players in 2001 from 7,000 in 1988 according to Hockey Canada. In the last 10 years, Hockey Canada reported a 400 per cent increase in participation in women’s hockey and said it is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.
The biggest jump in numbers happened at the time of the first world championships in 1991. More young girls saw a future career in hockey rather than ringuette – a trend that continues to this day. As ringuette is becoming less and less popular, women’s hockey continues to grow.
Boys hockey teams and ringuette, a game similar to hockey, were the only choice for girls in Ontario and Quebec before women’s hockey clubs was created. In ringuette, which was developed exclusively for girls, players use a straight stick to score a goal with a rubber ring.
The movement towards women’s hockey is continuing overseas as well. Women’s hockey is becoming more and more popular in Sweden and Finland. The recent Olympic exposure to the game in Russia and Italy is helping the game grow outside of North America. In fact, this past week it was announced that the first woman would take part in a Swedish men’s league game. Sweden’s Kim Martin, who is considered one of the best goalies in the world, is scheduled to play for a men’s team. Martin is the fourth woman to play in a men’s professional league joining Hayley Wickenheiser, Angela Ruggiero, and Manon Rheaume. The International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) says that women’s hockey was a project that began in 1990 and it is a work-in-progress, but women’s hockey is moving up the charts in terms of the number of people playing it.
Canada and the United States remain the dominant countries in international play, and other countries must begin to close the gap if the game is to thrive at the elite level. But there is no doubt that women’s hockey is one of the fastest growing games in the world, suggesting that future fans and players will likely view this era as the infancy of a popular and widespread sport.
The greatest example of this was at the recent Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. The Swedes, who were one of the youngest teams in the tournament, upset the Americans in the semi-final to advance to the gold medal game. It was the first time that the Canadians and Americans did not meet in the final of a major international hockey tournament and many people called the Swedish victory over the Americans the most important win in women’s hockey history.
Cecilia Anderson, the starting goaltender for the Concordia Stingers, was on that Swedish team in Torino. She said that the win was not a surprise because of the growth the Swedes’ program has had. The team’s other goaltender, Martin, is only 19 years old proving that other countries are starting to catch up to the North American teams.
This competitiveness has come a long way to when women’s hockey was a social event more than a fitness venture and in the day of highly trained athletes, this sport is like all the others becoming better and better and showing to the watchful eye of many people how good the game of hockey can be without body checking or hitting.
The history of women’s hockey goes all the way back to the late 19th century. Historians place the first ever women’s hockey game in 1892, although the place is disputed. By the turn of the century, teams all around the country were taking part in women’s hockey.
This first era of women’s hockey peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, with teams, leagues and tournaments in almost every region of Canada and a few areas of the United States. Some of the best Canadian teams met annually in an East-West tournament to declare a national champion. The Preston Rivulettes, a team in Ontario became the first dynasty of women’s hockey, dominating the game throughout the 1930s.
The game then started to lose popularity in the 1940s, and remained popular among small groups until the 1960s. In 1956, a Supreme Court ruled that Abby Hoffman, a nine-year old girl was unable to play with a boy’s team. Hoffman had already been playing with the team disguised as a boy. She dressed at home and kept her hair short to keep the secret.
A revival started soon after. More girls had their attempts to join boys teams rejected, but women’s hockey teams started to get ice time at arenas in Canada. Leagues started to form as well, with Canadian university teams starting in the early 1980s and American schools recognizing the sport in 1993.
In 1990, perhaps the most important decision regarding International women’s hockey was made. The IIHF sanctioned a women’s hockey World Championship to be held every year. This decision sparked countries around the world to take notice and to start women’s hockey programs. It also allowed any country without a history in hockey to create one, including China. Beijing was scheduled to hold the 2003 world women’s championship but it was cancelled due to the outbreak of the SARS virus.
The National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) began in 2000, giving top players on both sides of the border a chance to play outside the college or international systems. The Western Women’s Hockey League (WWHL) was established in 2004. The two professional leagues are trying to gain more exposure around North America and capitalize on the growing popularity of women’s hockey.
Despite all the positives women’s hockey has to offer, it has not been a box office sensation. Most of the hockey-crazed fans in Canada have not taken a liking to the game’s lack of physical play and aggression.
Attendance numbers in the two professional leagues in Canada and the United States have been less than stellar, and most people wouldn’t even be able to name the two leagues. At Concordia, the Stingers find it hard to get people other than friends and family to games.
“Women’s hockey has always been a tough sell,” Lawton says. “People in Montreal haven’t given it a chance, but when you go out to the Maritimes you see a difference but obviously the numbers aren’t where we want them to be,” he said.