The Rebel Girl: We Shoot, We Score — At Last!

Catherine Sameh

THE WINTER OLYMPICS feature snow, ice, and the amazing array of insane things done on top of them. From the spectacular to the extreme, the winter games bring us out of our cold-weather doldrums and show us a rare breed of athletes who make sense and beauty out of formidable mounds of snow and blocks of ice.

The 1998 saw the Olympic debut of women’s ice hockey, providing an alternative to the icon of the figure skater and an antidote to the assumption that hockey is a man’s sport. Women from six nations competed and by the time this magazine goes to press, Teams Canada and USA—the dominant teams at this stage in the sport’s development—will have played for the Gold Medal.

While new to the Olympics, women’s hockey has a deep history reaching back to 1891 when the first women’s game was recorded in Ottawa, Ontario.

According to Elizabeth Etue and Megan K. Williams, authors of On the Edge: Women Making Hockey History (Second Story Press, 1996), women’s hockey in Canada flourished from the turn of the century through the 1930s. Teams from the East and West competed for national titles, drawing crowds of up to six thousand.

According to Etue and Williams, popularity of the women’s game declined in the 1930s as the pro men’s game’s popularity took off. Pro games were broadcast on the radio, and by the early 1950s television (“Hockey Night in Canada”) jumped on the bandwagon.

It was at this time that “indoor rinks proliferated and a plethora of men’s hockey associations quickly gained control of the prime ice time in the arenas, effectively edging women off the ice.”

The `50s ideology of gender-specific roles for men and women worked to keep girls and women far away from hockey–now considered a highly aggressive masculine sport for which we were deemed too fragile and feminine.

In Canada, a “substitute” sport, ringette, was created in the 1960s as a “gentler” alternative to hockey. A cross between lacrosse, basketball and hockey, ringette soared in popularity as an all-women’s sport. Parents could channel their girls into this safer sport, and the public would greet them with praise and approval.

But by the late sixties and early seventies, women began to protest their lack of access to hockey, and spent the next twenty years organizing women’s hockey associations and “training programs for women referees, coaches, trainers and players.”

When bodychecking was banned in 1986, “registration for female hockey began to climb.” (Etue and Williams)

In 1991, women’s hockey was finally included in the Canada Winter Games. Team Canada’s Olympic goalie Manon Rheaume achieved some fame when she played for a men’s professional team.

Yet for women hockey players, the road to Nagano has been a long, arduous and, I fear, largely unappreciated one. CBS’s superficial coverage has done little to build our knowledge.

Still, the historic importance of women’s hockey at the 1988 Winter Olympics wasn’t entirely obscured from viewers and fans. And at the very least, girls who dream of taking to the ice in helmets, shoulder pads and knee pads now have the chance to pursue that dream.

ATC 73, March-April 1998