Hockey Central
A Woman's Game
Nagano Saw It Come of Age, but Woman's Hockey has Its Own Rich History

It was 1956 when defenseman Abbey Hoffman made headlines across Canada, largely because of a proposed swimming party. Abby Hoffman was a nine-year-old girl who had been selected to play in the Timmy Tyke minor hockey tournament, and the swimming party was proposed for the "boys" of the team after the tournament.

Hoffman had managed to disguise her sex throughout the season by dressing at home, which most of the kids did, and by wearing her hair in a boyish close crop. But the proposed swimming party, combined with the necessity of producing a birth certificate (which clearly would show her sex as female) in order to participate in the tourney, was Abby's downfall. However, determined to play in the league and the tournament, Abby and her family took hockey off the ice and into the courts. The Ontario Supreme Court ruled against Abby and she remained banished from the league. Undaunted, Abby went on to a distinguished track career, competing in four Olympics, the British Empire Games and the Pan-American Games.

In April 1982, in remembrance of Hoffman's struggle to play hockey, the Ontario Woman's Hockey Association (OWHA) played their first annual Abby Hoffman Cup (a national women's tournament) in Brantford, Ontario. In truth, though, Abby Hoffman had not forged a new trail for women in hockey. nor was the Abby Hoffman Cup Tourney the first truly national women's ice hockey tournament. Women are known to have played hockey as far back as the nineteenth century.

In 1889, only a month after Lord Stanley (who later contributed the Stanley Cup) and his family had appeared at the annual Ottawa Winter Carnival and witnessed this popular, new game of ice hockey, the local press reported that Lord Stanley's daughter, Isobel, had played for a Government House team in a victory over the Rideau ladies' hockey team. In 1896, a young woman who was reputed to be one of the fastest skaters in the province of Saskatchewan, Annie McIntyre, helped organize a woman's hockey team. In the province of Alberta, the Medicine Hat Times reported on March 11, 1897 about a game between two women's teams. And before the turn of the century, there were women's teams in Calgary, Banff, Medicine Hat, Red Deer, Vancouver, Kingston, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Fredrickton, Saint John and Moncton – although women were discouraged from playing the game in Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton. In 1900, three women's teams from Montreal and one each from Trois-Rivieres and Quebec City formed a league in Quebec.

From a copy of the OWHA's newsletter, a faded picture of the Ottawa Canadian Banknote team of 1905 shows six ladylike players dressed in ankle-length skirts, turtleneck sweaters and tasseled toques. Peeking out from under one long, flowing skirt, however, is a pair of genuine hockey skates, not figure skates. As one looks at this aged testimony to woman's hockey, one must remember that at that time men did not wear any significant protective gear when they played the game either. In fact, woman's ice hockey was a popular, avidly played and surprisingly well-attended sport through the 1920s and 1930s in Canada and small, isolated sections of the United States.

Women's hockey leagues in Ontario attracted both media attention and spectator interest through the 1920s. There was even an East-West (national) championship annually in Canada. At that time, Canada was a nation of small towns connected by the national railroad system and the women hockey players would take off in railroad cars and live in them (on sidings) until the tourney was over. Of course, this meant that the East-West event always had to take place between towns that were connected by the railroads.

The games took place on outdoor ice and records indicate that over 3,000 people watched one East-West tourney in Fort William, Ontario. In the 1930s, the Preston (Ontario) Rivulettes were the winningest and best-known women's hockey team in all of Canada, with an astounding record of only two losses in more than 350 games. The Rivulettes were the Canadian women's hockey champions for an entire decade, from 1930 to 1940 – something even the fabled Montreal Canadians cannot claim.

The history of women's hockey, both in Canada and the United States, parallels the status of women overall. Women achieved great strides in civil rights and cultural freedom prior to World War II, culminating with a huge influx of women into the job market when the men went off to fight from 1939 through 1945. After the war, however, the men returned, women were forced back into the home, and a new era of conservatism toward women and their role in society began, which extended into the early 1960s.

The rise and fall and further rise of women's hockey echoes this history. Participation and interest in women's hockey played before World War II, then waned during the war years (reflecting what was happening at the highest levels of men's professional hockey). After World War II, women's hockey of the 1950s and early 1960s reflected the prevalent attitude toward women: they should be feminine, weak, frivolous and decorative. Women no longer used hockey skates, but darted about, giggling and flirting, on white figure skates, wearing no protective equipment whatsoever. Stories of the time dealt more with hair styles and fashion than with skating, shooting prowess or stick handling, and one "cute" story – with voluptuous starlet Jayne Mansfield on the ice wielding a hockey stick and a vacuous smirk – personified the devaluation of women's participation in nearly all sports, and definitely in all sports which were traditionally a masculine domain.

This is why Abby Hoffman's effort to complete in a boys hockey league all the way back in 1956 remains so astounding. At a time when other girls and women never were encouraged and often were discouraged to complete with men – at any level or in any kind of endeavor – and to act and appear as feminine as possible, Hoffman played as equal with boys her age and succeeded.

Arnold Bruner, then of the Toronto Daily Star, described a typical women's hockey game of the period: "It was a gentlemanly – oops – ladylike game of hockey with the girls, some wearing no more protective equipment than flimsy blouses, doing everything they could to keep from bumping into each other."

By the mid-1960s, reflecting the activism of the times, women's hockey began to take on a more serious nature. In British Columbia, Jack Campbell and Doug Dionne wanted to get ice time for their daughters and other interested girls, and at the beginning of the 1963-64 season they received one hour of ice per week from the Killarney Community Centre Association. In Burnaby (a suburb of Vancouver), a women's softball team became a hockey team when they could get the ice time. By 1965-66, there was a five-team girls league and age divisions of junior, intermediate and senior were formed. Within a couple of years, there were 25 teams in the lower British Columbia mainland and 12 teams on Vancouver Island. Soon, teams from the interior of the province began to join what became the B.C. Girls' Ice Hockey Association. By the 1970s, girls' teams from British Columbia were traveling to the eastern provinces on tours. One team went to Finland for exhibitions, another traveled to Japan for a tourney.

British Columbia and Ontario were not the only hotbeds of women's hockey, however. In Saskatchewan, one story has it that NHL greats Max and Doug Bentley's earliest (and stiffest, is is told) competition came from their own sisters. Besides Max and Doug, the Bentley's sent four other brothers from their Saskatchewan home into professional hockey. But, according to Bill Bentley, the family's father, it was not the boys but the girls, seven sisters in all, who were the family's better hockey players when young.

"The girls had a hockey team when they were kids," explained Papa Bentley, "and they could beat the blisters off the boys nine times out of ten!"

Likewise, in traditional U.S. hockey areas such as Massachusetts women's hockey flourished. Leagues grew in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with women's rediscovery of "liberation".

Although women rushed to join girls and women's teams and leagues, there were isolated women who tried to join the men's teams, like Abby Hoffman before them. Karen Koch, 19, tried to play for a Senior A men's club in Michigan and already had played goal for a Northern Michigan University fraternity team. Karen even moved to Toronto in an effort to find a men's team that would let her play but there was an Ontario Hockey Association rule prohibiting women's playing on men's teams. For a short time in 1970, Jane Yearwood, 10, played goal for a boys' team in an organized league in Edmonton, Alberta. Jane was remarkable in that she had been playing goal since the age of five and did so without a mask.

Gail Cummings, 11, tried out for the goalie slot on a Huntsville Minor Hockey Association all-star team, and in October 1976, she signed a Canadian Amateur Hockey Association player registration certificate. She played four games with the team before she was notified by coach Barry Webb that her certificate had been rejected. Like Hoffman, Gail and her family took the matter all the way up to the Ontario Supreme Court, where she was ultimately rejected.

More than a decade later, a high school senior in the unlikely town of Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York won a discrimination suit against the town, and Barbara Broidy officially was allowed to play with the boys in the town's high school ice hockey league. Unfortunately, the ruling came down just as Barbara was about to go off to college and her chance to play with the boys was almost completely gone.

Whatever the image, the fears and the difficulties, by 1982 there were more than 12,000 girls and women playing hockey in the Canadian province of Ontario alone. In the U.S., the women's division of USA Hockey (formerly AHAUS – the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States) had 116 teams registered, covering the spectrum from Squirt (12 years and up), through Senior A (women 20 and older), including 35 women's and girls' teams in Massachusetts alone.

Canadian College and universities operated women's teams in the 1980s and by the close of the decade, the quality of the women's game had advanced. Concordia University in Montreal was a power in the women's game, attracting top players from both Canada and the U.S.

In the U.S., the Eastern Colleguate Athletic Conference began sponsoring women's collegiate hockey in 1984. By the mid-1990s there were more than 65 colleges and universities in the East and Midwest that sponsored either women's varsity or club ice hockey teams. The main event in U.S. women's college hockey is the ECAC Women's Championship Tournament.

In the meantime, from 1990-91 through 1996-97, the number of girls and women registered with USA Hockey almost quadrupled, swelling from 5,573, to more than 23,000 in five age categories ranging from "nine and under" to "senior" (20 and over), with the "nine and under" group comprising almost 30 percent of the total.

In 1993 another breakthrough came when the NCAA officially recognized women's ice hockey as an emerging sport. This recognition has enabled collegiate women's ice hockey to graduate from a regional to a national sport. However, NCAA rules require that in order for a women's sport to hold an annual national championship tournament at least 40 colleges or universities must offer varsity ice hockey programs for women, and these varsity programs have to exist for at least two years.

"I believe that over the next six years there will be a huge number of schools adding the sport," said Cornell women's ice hockey coach Julie Andeberhan. In fact, it was predicted that the women's version of ice hockey would qualify under the NCAA rules for a national championship by the 2000-01 season.

In 1994 the state of Minnesota became the first to designate girl's ice hockey as a varsity sport at the high school level. As a result the number of Minnesota high schools with varsity girls' hockey teams jumped from 24 in 1994-95 to more than triple that number (85) in 1997-98.

Also in 1994, USA Hockey created the women's equivalent of the college hockey Hobey Baker Award: the USA Hockey Women's Hockey Player of the Year Award, which was won the first time by Erin Whitten, a goaltender from Glans Falls, New York, who also became the starting goaltender for Team USA.

On the international level women's ice hockey was growing, too, with the initial World Invitational Tournament taking place in 1987 in North York and Missussauga, Ontario. Simultaneously pressure was being applied to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to create a world championship for women and after IIHF president Dr. Gunther Sabetzki attended the European Women's Championship in 1989, he began to formulate plans for a Women's World Championship.

The plans were realized in 1990, when the first-ever IIHF Women's World Championship took place in Ottawa. The Canadian women's team nabbed the gold, the U.S. women took silver and Finland returned home with the bronze. Cornell's Julie Andeberhan was a member of that silver medal-winning 1990 U.S. women's team.

"It was like my dream come true," she recalled. "It was something that I always hoped for and now it was happening. A lot of my time playing sports had been spent just trying to pursue excellence and not really having a concrete idea of what I could do. Finally, here was a chance to play on the U.S. team with such great players and for the first time understand what it is to play on an international level."

A momentous leap forward for women's ice hockey happened in 1992 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose to include it as a full-medal sport in the 2002 Winter Olympics which would take place in Salt Lake City, Utah. In the meantime, either the 1994 or 1998 Winter Olympic host could include women's ice hockey as a medal sport if they so chose. The Japanese Olympic Organizing Committee, hosts of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, opted in include women's hockey.

The second IIHF Women's World Championship also took place in 1992 and the venue moved to Tampere, Finland, although the results were identical to the first world tourney: Canada, gold; U.S., silver; Finland, bronze. The third world event would take place in Lake Placid, New York in 1994, with results unchanged for the third consecutive time.

In April 1997 the fourth IIHF Women's World Championship took place in Kitchener, Ontario, serving as a qualifier for the 1998 Olympic Winter Games. Team USA was now coached by Ben Smith, formerly the men's ice hockey coach at Northeastern University. Guided by Smith, the U.S. women almost pulled off a major upset, yielding only to the Canadian women's team 4-3 in overtime (thereby giving the Canadian women a perfect 20-0 record in international competition).

Outside of the international and collegiate competitions, in 1992 a young Quebec goaltender created professional ice hockey history when she was given the chance to appear in a Tampa Bay Lightning exhibition game against the St. Louis Blues. Before a huge but skeptical crowd of 27,000 in the ThunderDome, Manon Rheaume played the game's first period in the Tampa net. When she exited the goal after one period, the score was 2-2.

Although Manon did not make the Lightning's regular squad for the 1992-93 season, she did play with Tampa's farm team in the International Hockey League. She was invited to the next Lightning preseason training camp and appeared in another exhibition game – this time versus the Boston Bruins. Rheaume subsequently played several more seasons in the minor leagues. backstopping for the Charlotte Checkers and Knoxville Cherokees of the East Coast Hockey League, the Las Vegas Thunder of the IHL and the Reno Renegades of the West Coast Hockey League – belying the accusations that her playing professional men;s hockey was just a one-time publicity stunt. (Theaume did not play minor pro men's hockey in 1997-98 in order to honor her commitment to the Canadian Women's Olumpic team.)

While Theaume and Erin Whitten remain the only women to play in the minors, the fact that they played on mixed-gender teams was not unique. Unfortunately, Canadian Hockey (formerly the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association) does not keep records of girls and young women playing on boy's youth hockey teams, so the true number of girls and young women playing ice hockey in Canada are not yet accurate (that number was officially listed at 23,922 in 1996.)

But USA Hockey – which is well aware of the fact that the number of girls' and women's teams and leagues in the U.S. has not kept pace in all with the rise in participation – says that a majority of the 20,319 registered girls and women playing hockey outside of the collegiate system in 1996 are doing so on mixed-gender teams.

"Growing up playing mostly with boys in youth hockey programs," recalled Mario Dennis, a former Yale hockey player and member of the board of directors of USA Hockey, "people would come up to me and say. 'you skate so wonderfully,' and I would say, 'thank you.' Then they'd say, 'you skate like a guy,' to which I reply, 'I don't skate like a guy; I skate like a hockey player.'"

And when the women hockey players rallied forth on Olympic ice in Nagano, Japan – whether they began playing ice hockey disguised as boys, or played girls' hockey in Duluth, Springfield or Trois-Rivieres – they would be wearing equipment designed for women and they would play their own game, with their own rules.