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The January 15, 2017 issue of the TORONTO SUN dedicated a full page to the retirement of Hayley Wickenheiser. It is indeed rare for other than an NHL’er to be granted such a prominent tribute. Possibly the MONTREAL GAZETTE’S lead sports editorial on Angela James’ election to the Hall of Fame in 2000 is another such feature posted by the fifth estate.
This departure from the norm emphasizes two things: One, the exalted status of this female shinny icon, about whom has been ascribed accolades like, “one of the best players in the world”; “legend”; and “incomparable career.” Two, the dominant place which women’s hockey now rightly holds in the world of sports, and in the venue of the world’s fastest game in particular.
My three sisters all played hockey. The eldest made her debut in 1951, the other two siblings around 1960. At that time, except in larger centres, ladies hockey was a community affair. Teams from villages and small towns would meet for a friendly match. Whether for casual meetings or as part of an informal schedule, the fun of playing took precedence over how well the contests were attended.
This personal anecdote reflects the small beginnings in hockey which the fair sex experienced. But this article in no way pretends to be an exhaustive chronicle about this aspect of Canada’s National Sport.
That can be left to Brian McFarlane in his 1994 volume, “Proud Past, Bright Future—ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF CANADIAN WOMEN’S HOCKEY”. He unearths the fact that as early as 1890 a photographer snapped a shot of a group of ladies, including Lord Stanley’s daughter, Isobel, playing the game at Rideau Hall. In more formal settings female teams from Regina, Edmonton, Stratford, and Montreal were also active in the sport. Describing the scenes mentioned above, he focuses on “long skirts and short sticks”, exploring the attire of these ladies who braved entering the domain that was considered exclusively a male one.
But he also pinpoints the barriers which stood in their way of freely enjoying the ice game. In a word, “they faced overwhelming public skepticism and hostility”. On the community level, “Men were strictly forbidden from entering the premises when the ladies were playing. The names of the participants were never published, and no photograph of them would ever be taken.”
He adds that “Some women were cautioned by their family doctors to avoid taking part in any physical activity aside from their household chores. The medical profession, which was predominately male, took note of women’s escalating participation in sports and began issuing stern warning again a number of physical pursuits, such a cycling, running, and games that night lead to bodily contact—like hockey. Vigourous activity on the playing fields, women were cautioned, might result in damage to the reproductive organs.”
Perhaps they had been peeking into a blurb in the Toronto Star, which had picked up an item from Montreal: “In the Ladies Inter-City hockey League, operating in Montreal and Ottawa, in last week’s game the “girls roughed it up so much at Montreal four players were suspended for un-lady-like conduct!”
As late as 1914 the Amateur Athletic Union of Canada wouldn’t allow women to be part of the sports they controlled. It was 1928 before the first athletic events for women were included in the Olympics.
But that in no way spelled a significant opening of doors to organized sports for females. Even in the early 1980’s when Hayley Wickenheiser entered the scene, she testifies that “Truly it was h--- at times…….I smile because sometimes I think, ‘These little girls (today) have no idea how tough it has been’”.
She mentions simply things like no specific dressing rooms for girls—changing in the back seat of a car, or in a washroom.
To borrow a slogan which was long attached to a far less worthy progression—“You’ve come a long way, baby!”, the approval of, and the convenience for, the fair sex has made great advancements in those 100 years plus.
McFarlane explores its steady growth in the 1930’s, the sharp decline in the 1940’s and 1950’s, stemming from women entering the work force prompted by World War II, and the revival of interest in the 1960’s and 1970’s. That enthusiasm magnified during the next decade with the commencement of the Women’s National Hockey Championship and the Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship. That was followed up with the graduation to the Olympic competitions in 1998.
The aim of this missive is not to emulate the work of SIHR’s most celebrated member. His thorough-going chronicle is an example of comprehensiveness at its fullest. But this expose will concentrate on highlights and headlines focusing on women’s intrusion into the world of this manly recreation.
One of the first examples of gender bending inspired this headline in the Winnipeg press: “12-Year-Old Girl Banned From League Play”. Phyllis Chorney, had already been skating with a boy’s team for two years in the Parks League. But in December 1947, when she attempted to return to action, she discovered a rule had been passed prohibiting her from doing so. League officials, referring back to what happened when it was discovered she was a girl, passed the rule “Because she had a natural advantage, boys were afraid to check her”.
A far more publicized case made headlines in March, 1956. On the roster of the Little Toronto Hockey League’s “Tee Pees”, was listed “Ab Hoffman”. In reality it was “Abigail Hoffman” a nine-year-old Toronto girl. When her parents took her for registration in the fall of 1955, they were seeking a girl’s team on which she could play. But Abby wandered among some 400 boys of he own age, got into that line, and submitted her birth certificate.
She not only made the team but was a skilled defenseman, gaining star status. She had not been found out because she cropped her hair like a boy’s and changed into all but her skates at home. But, previous to a season-ending tournament she was required to produce her birth certificate—and the cat was out of the bag. She was quickly banned from further participation because “girls were not allowed on boys teams”. She took he case to the Ontario Supreme Court, but they ruled in favour of the league.
Her situation caught the attention of the media, nation-wide—even extending to Time Magazine and Newsweek. She was also interviewed on the CBC. Because of the widespread news coverage, her story reached the offices of the New York Rangers. There a mythical discussion, involving Manager Muzz Patrick and Chief Scout Jack Humphries took place. They pondered whether she might be the next Jean Beliveau. The question of whether a female was allowed in the NHL came to light; but the decision was that no such rule forbidding it existed. The bantering concluded with: “I can see it now. “Abigail (Hard Rock) Hoffman with Leapin’ Lou Fontinato. What a combo!”
But an even more impressive breakthrough for the so-called weaker sex took place in December 1952.
From the DETROIT NEWS this headline by Marshal Dann hit the press: “From now on it’s a woman who’s bossing the rough, tough Detroit Red Wings!”
He went on to explain that with the death of Big Jim Norris, his daughter, Marguerite, the youngest of his four offspring, would become the first woman to head a pro hockey team. She was named a President of both the hockey club and the Olympia Stadium by a family conclave in Chicago. She had worked for her father for 20 years with no contract involved, but now intended to learn the ropes “from the ground up”. She would also represent the team as Governor in the NHL.
She continued in that role for three campaigns—each of which ended with regular-season first place finish. She was the first woman to have her name engraved on the Stanley Cup—in 1954 and 1955. Following that triumph she resigned in favour of her brother Bruce.
It would be six years before another headline of this kind found its way into print. In October 1961, the Philadelphia Ramblers of the Eastern Hockey League announced that Connie Williams had been appointed as Assistant General Manager. Her duties would include dealing with the players, arranging transportation for all road trips, as well as general office chores usually handled a business manager. She would also work closely in ticket sales and, and assist Dudley the owner/general manager in various other facets of operating a hockey club. It is believed she is the only woman in organized sports to hold such a capacity in an athletic team.
In December of 1969, the Marquette Iron Rangers of the USHL posted notice that “they have added a little something new.” The “new” was 18-year-old Karen Koch, who had signed a contract to be backup netminder for the club. She was billed as the “world’s’ first female semi-pro goalie”. The team’s first match was in Sault St. Marie, Ontario, where, although she didn’t get into the game, drew a lot of interest during the pre-gam warm up. She was photographed stopping a shot from the local mayor, John Rhodes. A Northern Michigan University co-ed, she had been playing the game for 10 years.
Stan Fischler is a prolific author of hockey books. For years, until her untimely passing, his wife Shirley was an accomplished writer in her own right. She collaborated with him on more than 20 volumes, and excelled in various aspects of journalism.
She also led the way in the right of women to break down the male bias toward female reporters. In 1971, she applied for membership in the Professional Hockey Writers Association, in order to gain a place in the press box of Madison Square Garden. She was rebuffed on the basis that the organization’s constitution prohibited women from belonging. She took her case to the New York Human Rights Association. It was more the threat which this represented, than any legal action, which finally persuaded the PHWA to recant on their position. In 1971, she finally broke down the barrier, and submitted her initial dispatch on April 10th.
She was also the first female to join the select group of hockey analysts. For the 1973-74 season, she and Stan teamed together on TV in the broadcast booth of the New England Whalers of the WHA.
In the fall of 1974 when the Greensboro Generals of the Southern (Pro) Hockey League were sold to new owners, there was a promise of a complete revamping from stem to stern. They returned to the former green and white uniforms and engaged Bob Perreault as their new bench boss. But the newest innovation was the appointment of Mrs. Ann McGinnis as General Manager, a rare wrinkle indeed in pay-for-play sports. It was believed to be a first in pro hockey at the time.
In November of 1977 the St. Louis Blues set a precedent by hiring a lady, Susie Mathieu, as the team’s Publicity Director. She had previously been the assistant in that department, as well as being second in command in the North Stars’ publicity department. The club’s General Manager, Emile Francis, made the decision after a two-hour interview. With her it was the first instance of an NHL executive’s career being interrupted by pregnancy, which became evident in early winter 1981.
While it was not at the pro level, in 1977, 19-year-old Bev Lockhart began doing the play-by-play of the Swift Current Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. A former hostess at Winnipeg Jets home games, she was the recipient of generous accolades for her skill in the broadcast booth.
Although it was an issue which smouldered behind the scenes for years, it came to a head again in 1980—namely, the right for female reporters to be allowed in players’ dressing rooms. Some women journalists, who had at least partially bought into the “burn your bra” philosophy of the sex revolution, linked this barrier as just another male prejudice. They somehow forgot that many players retained the old fashion concepts of modesty, and therefore objected to those of the opposite gender intruding upon their privacy while they were in their BVD’s, or less. The aforementioned Stan Fischler referred to two Manhattan area ladies who complained that barring the locker room to them “had nothing to do with morality, but rather jealousy”.
On December 9, 1981 two unnamed Boston Bruins would have been quick to argue that point. Following a game at Madison Square Garden they turned red-faced when female scribes invaded the dressing room, catching the pucksters off guard.
By the early 1980’s more doors began to open to belles of the hockey ball set.
*In November 1980, the Charlotte Checkers of the Central Hockey League announced that Cheryl Carter would be the PR Director, a first for that circuit.
*Robin Finn followed in her father’s journalistic footsteps, as the newest shinny scribe on that sports beat, reporting for the Minneapolis Star.
*Kathy Blumenstock, former reporter for Sports Illustrated took a giant step in her field by becoming editor of Goal Magazine.
*Mary Leslie Ullman, who played goal for Brown University’s ladies squad, was appointed publicist of the U.S. Amateur Hockey Association.
*Two women share ownership in NHL sextets. Fran Tobin (along with hubby Sylvan) has partnership in the Philadelphia Flyers; and Sonia Scurfield is one of six owners of the Calgary Flames.
*But the biggest boost to Miss/Mrs. Brigade was when the iconic stature of Angela James came to light. In 1987 the Hockey News featured her in an Editorial page written by Steve Dryden. His headline read: “Female Gretzky—Angela James”. He further commented that she was “the best female player in Canada—perhaps in the world”; and he was supported by others who echoed the same sentiment. At age 22 she had reached the heights at the level at which she was allowed to play. An all-star at either defense or forward, her mentor, Mississauga Warriors coach Lee Trempe, raved about her. “She has an outstanding hockey sense!”
The 5’6” Toronto native “(…) can play it every which way—dizzying the opposition with finesse, and overwhelming them with a resounding power game!” She led Canada’s Women’s team to four World Championships in the 1990’s, and was one of the few ladies to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
Amidst all this resoluteness, there is time to take a peek into a lighthearted incident. The 1980’s TV Programme “Thrill of a Lifetime” ventured onto the hockey scene. The CTV show arranged countless unique adventures for a cross-section of ordinary folks of all ages. A student appeared in a cameo appearance on the Campbells series, and a woman took over as hostess on the Alan Thicke show. A pee wee hockey team scrimmaged with the Quebec Nordiques; a 12-year-old skated with Guy Lafleur; and an Ottawa lady went for to skate and took a pass from her favourite player, Wayne Gretzky.
In 1982 Sheila Carr imitated “Queen for a Day” by being the coach of the OHA Peterborough Petes for one game. An enthusiastic fan of the Liftlock City club, a co-worker suggested her name to the programme. It was arranged that she accompany the team on their trip by bus to Oshawa, where they would face the Generals. Her first duty was to give the pre-game pep talk, in which she challenged them to “play tough and leave butts all over the ice!” As assistant to bench boss Dick Todd, she admitted most of her tutoring amounted to loud ”cheer leading”. But she did get into a heated exchange with opposition captain Mitch Lamoureux.
If there was a downside it was her embarrassment in trying to navigate across the ice in high heels, which betrayed her and left her on her behind on the ice.
IN TWO WEEKS: PART 2—THE KNOTICLE NINETIES AND NEW MILLENIUM
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