Equality on ice: women hockey players win a world profile

The West German women managed just 12 shots on the Canadian net, and the Swedes only three. In return, the Canadians blasted 119 shots at their weaker European opponents in two games and outscored them by 32 goals to one. Despite the mismatches and lopsided scores, organizers of the first Women’s World Ice Hockey Championship, held last week in Ottawa, expressed pleasure about a new profile for a little-known brand of the game. The Sports Network (TSN) televised four games nationally and about 85 journalists from six countries were accredited to cover the tournament. Organizers said that their next objective is to get women’s hockey accepted as part of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway. Said Frances Rider, president of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association:

“We’re very confident it will e in the Olympics. It’s long overdue.”

After the decisive victories over Sweden and West Germany, most observers expected the Canadian women, who wore garish pink-and-white uniforms bearing stylized maple leaves, to advance to the championship game on March 25. Among the eight nations taking part, the U.S. and Finnish teams were the tournament’s other powerhouses. Although those three teams were far superior to their rivals, organizers said that holding a world championship should convince more women that hockey is not just a men’s game, and that it will give current players an objective to strive for. Said Rider: “Up until now, there has been no elite international competition for women playing hockey.”

Building women’s hockey as an organized sport has been a slow process, even in Canada. The first national championship for women was held in 1982, and five years later the Ontario association hosted an international tournament in Toronto for six countries. As a result, the International Ice Hockey Federation sanctioned a women’s world championship and, at a tournament last year, Sweden, Finland, Norway, West Germany and Switzerland earned the right to attend the Ottawa championship. The Canadian and U.S. teams were selected on the basis of training camps attended by the best players in both countries. Japan agreed to represent Asia after China decided not to send a team.

Across the country, 7,500 women play in leagues affiliated with the Ottawa-based Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, said Harold Lewis, the CAHA’s director of regulations. He estimated that another 18,000 play for high-school, university or recreational teams unassociated with his organization. Ontario has 4,600 CAHA players and 327 teams. Alberta stands a distant second, with 940 players and 57 teams.

Still, women who want to play hockey face many obstacles. They must compete for ice time with male teams, figure skaters and broom-ball leagues. As well, women have trouble finding sponsors for tournaments and championships. Said Lewis: “In male hockey, corporate sponsors are knocking on the door, but women’s hockey is not very popular from a marketing point of view.”

In some of the other countries competing at the world championship, women’s hockey is far less developed than it is in Canada because of lack of ice time and interest in the sport. There are only about 600 female players in Sweden, all in a single league. After Canada defeated Japan 18-0, team captain Tamami Nishida explained that there are only 30 to 40 women’s teams in Japan, including five in Tokyo. Said Nishida: “We knew we couldn’t beat Canada. They’re not only fast and strong, they know hockey.”

In some cases, that speed, strength and knowledge of the game result from years of playing and practising. Canadian forward Vicky Sunohara, a 20-year-old Scarborough, Ont., native, said that her father introduced her to the game at the age of 2 and enrolled her in a boys league when she was 5. Defenceman Judy Diduck, a 24 year old Edmonton resident, said that she played road hockey with neighborhood boys for years, including her brother, Gerald, now a defenceman for the New York Islanders.

As female hockey players become more skilled, comparisons between the abilities of men and women are inevitable. The CAHA’s Lewis, who has been associated with the game for 50 years, said that many female players are quick, agile skaters and good stickhandlers. In most cases, they cannot shoot the puck as hard as men because they have less upper-body strength. But, in last week’s tournament, the Canadian women showed that they can play a tough brand of hockey. Their match against Sweden included several thunderous collisions and 21 minor penalties for such infractions as boarding, roughing and high-sticking. Indeed, whether the players are male or female, hockey is a game of speed, agility and emotion. With more exposure for the game, the world gradually is getting in on the secret.