About our Guest Author: Kelley Lee Gilmore is a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Global Health Governance in the Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University. Her passion for hockey began in 1972 after her teacher rolled a television into her Grade 5 classroom for the iconic final game of the Canada-Russia series. However, without family support or financial means, she did not have the opportunity to play until her late teens. She played with the Kitsilano Kanakas for four seasons. After moving to the UK in 1986, she play in Brighton and Milton Keynes, and then coached as a committed hockey parent. She moved with her family back to Vancouver in 2010 where she plays in a variety of local women’s and co-ed leagues.
It comes to us all in time – old age. In Canada, there are now more people aged over 65 than there are children under 14 years for the first time since Confederation. This includes a growing number of older ice hockey players. Given the strength, agility, speed, balance and endurance needed to play such a physically demanding sport, getting older as a hockey player means tough decisions. At any level of competition – from recreational to elite – aging means adjusting how we play, who we play with, how often we play and even if we play at all.
For older male players, there are varied opportunities to compete against similarly-aged players locally, nationally and even internationally. There are many men’s “masters” and “old-timer” leagues, as well as, senior or 55+ tournaments throughout Canada and worldwide. Men’s teams can compete by age group and tier. For female hockey players, however, there are far fewer opportunities to play beyond a certain age. While large numbers of female players take up the sport later in life, and female hockey is the fasting growing sector of the sport, the lack of options means that relatively few female players continue to play after 55+.
Aging as a new barrier for women’s hockey
Hockey academies, girls only camps and leagues, and university scholarships have all been achieved as a result of hard won battles for greater equity on the ice. These battles remain ongoing and are far from over. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, older female players find themselves hindered by past and present inequities. Women who started playing in the 1970s and 1980s were held back by a lack of coaching and ice availability. Women who started later in life, as Denyse Lafrance Horning at Nipissing University describes, struggle to even be considered as “real hockey players”. One available option is to join a “masters” league, if they are run locally, although the definition of masters is usually around 30-35+ years. Alternatively, an older player may choose to drop down divisions to keep pace. This is not necessarily a good fit for players who may be slower but highly experienced. Another option is to join a men’s old-timers league which can provide a skilled game at a slower pace. However, the lack of women in such leagues, and the “vintage” attitudes of some older male players towards female players, can make such leagues feel unwelcoming.
There are even fewer opportunities for older female players to compete beyond the local level. There are a growing number of commercially-operated “masters” games (35+ years), which serve growing numbers of ageing but still active people worldwide. The Americas Masters Games held in Vancouver in 2016 included female hockey although this was a rare exception. A more established option is USA Hockey’s Women’s Rec Nationals (held since 2010), which now offers tournaments in four age groups (30+, 40+, 50+ and 60+). In Canada, the most important opportunity for older female players to compete are 55+ (previously known as Senior) Games. These women’s tournaments are held annually in some provinces and nationally every two years.
The long absence of women’s hockey from 55+ BC Games
It is because of the lack of opportunity for older female players that the introduction of women’s hockey at the 55+ BC Games in 2018 was so significant. The BC Senior Games were created in 1987 and has grown over the years into a five-day, province-wide, multi-sport event. Nationally, the Canadian Senior Games Association oversees the Canada 55+ Games. Given the large aging population in Canada, these events are publicly supported to “improve the health, lifestyle, and image” of the 55+ population.
The Canadian Senior Games Association lists hockey as a “mandatory sport” (as opposed to optional and bonus sports) to be held at all 55+ games in Canada. In BC, while a men’s tournament in various age groups has run for decades, there has never been a women’s competition. Women could compete in cycling, track and field, softball, golf, and even cribbage and whist, but not hockey. In other provinces, this has not been the case. Ontario holds an invitational tournament of 12 teams (3 tiers x 4 teams) with the two top teams in the top tier going to the 55+ nationals. The 2018 Canada 55+ Games held in Saint John, New Brunswick held a 7-team women’s tournament (Ontario x 2, Quebec, Alberta, PEI, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick). BC women have never been represented in these national tournaments because of the absence of women’s hockey at the 55+ BC games.
This remarkable 31-year absence has not been from a lack of pushing for inclusion over the years. Indeed, there have been local efforts on many fronts asking the same question – why can’t women compete in hockey at 55+ BC Games? The response from organizers has been that there simply are not enough players and teams to compete. During the 1980s, and perhaps even the 1990s, this may well have been the case given that women’s hockey was only re-established in BC from the 1970s. Since the 2000s, however, this argument is more difficult to justify as female player numbers have grown across the province.
When local players (led by goalie Melanie McFarlane) from the host Cranbrook and Kimberley area discovered that there would be no women’s hockey for the 2018 games, they took on the battle to fight for inclusion. They were told by organizers that they had to prove that there would be sufficient teams and zones represented. In response, the women mobilized, not only locally, but across the province. Through countless emails, a Facebook page and personal contacts, a petition was organized. Letters of support were obtained from BC Hockey, Adult Safe Hockey League and Canadian Adult Recreation Hockey Association. This documentation was presented to the Rules Committee of the BC Senior Games Society and official approval was finally received on November 28, 2017:
We are pleased to have Women’s Hockey join our other 30 sports that a Host Society may choose for inclusion in the 55+ BC Games,” said Cindy Simpson, President of the BC Senior Games Society. “We are very happy that Women’s Hockey will be a part of the Kimberley/Cranbrook Games and look forward to seeing athletes from across B.C. participating.
For those pushing at the door of the Games for years, it was a long overdue decision. “It’s about time, women’s hockey has never been better!” said Sandy Zeznik, Co-President of the 2018 Kimberley/Cranbrook 55+ BC Games.
Game On! Six teams prepare to make BC history
Six teams from across BC entered the inaugural women’s hockey competition in 2018, two more than the organizers had hoped for. There were three teams from Vancouver Island (Zones 1 and 2), two from the BC interior (Zone 7), and one from the Vancouver Lower Mainland (Zone 4). The local Kootenay Ice-Agers were perhaps the only squad with some familiarity as a team. They also received welcome support from the Western Hockey League’s Kootenay Ice team which helped design their logo, provide a high-level coaching session, and give on-ice recognition to the women. For players on other teams, many had never met their teammates before the tournament, let alone played together.
The Sharpshooters, who play out of Burnaby 8 Rinks, formed the core of the Zone 4 team. Hockey experience ranged from 11 to 47 years (almost as long as the Canucks have not won a Stanley Cup!). Players were a combination of pioneers, who started playing in the 1970s and 1980s when female hockey was virtually non-existent, and women who started later as adults. Each player had a story to tell. Each had to learn the game with little coaching, and definitely without the hockey camps and academies available to girls today. Many were encouraged to take up ringette or figure skating. Instead, they chose to play a physical and competitive sport when most girls were not encouraged to be physical and competitive.
My story follows similar lines. Now in my mid 50s, I started playing as a teenager in the early 1980s. After a few seasons playing in the UK, I took a prolonged break to have a family, before unexpectedly returning to the sport in my 40s. New equipment and a new training regime saw me regain some of my old form. However, just as I was finally feeling like I was developing something resembling a hockey IQ, my legs stopped turning over as fast as they used to. Younger players began to catch me from behind when once I could leave them in my wake. And the days when I could play 3 or 4 games a week were sadly gone.
I had a taste of playing “age-appropriate” hockey in 2016 when I competed in the America’s Masters Games and came away with a silver medal. Only a few teams entered, so it isn’t quite as impressive as it sounds, but it was great to be on the ice with similarly-aged players for the first time. Suddenly I was fast again. Aware that such opportunities were few and far between, I happily signed the petition to get women’s hockey into the BC 55+ games and was delighted to hear in early 2018 that the decision was positive.
It was now time to prepare for the games. Individually, along with playing with my usual women’s and co-ed teams, my training was increased to weekly spin classes, MMX workouts, weights, and never ending stretching. Weight training was added to stem muscle loss which occurs after 50. High intensity interval training (HIIT) was added to rebuild fast twitch muscles for rapid leg turnover and thus skating speed. Power skating, hockey classes and a camp in Montreal with Olympians Caroline Ouellette and Marie-Philip Poulin were added for an extra edge [Read more about the Ouellette Poulin camp experience here].
As a team, there was little time to prepare. Once registered, the summer holidays were upon us. One lone practice was held before the Games to go over basic positioning and, importantly, allow our coach/player Gwen Ranquist-Lemieux the opportunity to assess the skill level of the team and who might play where. If she had fears about our chances, she didn’t show it. I immediately felt confident in her ability to size us up and make the most of our varied assets. Gwen had played and coached at the highest levels of ice and ball hockey. A retired Vancouver police officer, and now with Vancouver Metro Transit Police, she was previously named Head Coach of the US Women’s National Ball Hockey Team in 2017 (silver medalists). With deep experience of what it takes to win, but armed with little more than a spreadsheet of names, years of experience, preferred positions and shooting direction a mere month before the Games, Gwen began to meticulously plan.
Going for gold
We arrived in Kimberley with few expectations other than to spend some rare time away from family and work, playing the game we all loved. Almost all of the team stayed in a rented house which would prove to serve an essential role in team bonding. Player/coach, Gwen, and, bench coach, Karla Winters (too young to play in this first tournament) gathered us together to introduce ourselves to each other. Among my team mates for the week were a bus driver, massage therapist, teacher, accountant, skating instructor, community worker, two retired police officers and, most intriguing, a professional clown. A diverse group of women united by their passion for hockey. We had less than 24 hours to come together as a team. Our tournament began the next morning with the first of three round robin games.
There is no doubt that Coach Gwen’s 35 years of coaching experience was the difference maker. Probably unknown to most of us, she began a process of team building and game strategy that fit us like a glove. At one point, defenceman Sand Northrup (and resident clown) joked that we were a bunch of “uncoached and frankly uncoachable players”. In reality, players found themselves receiving the quality of coaching that they missed out on as younger players and appreciatively lapped up the advice. It proved an incredible master class in playing a simple and consistent style of hockey.
Between games, the time was spent playing cards, cooking meals, engaging in hot tub conversations, and participating in games festivities. There were team talks each night to discuss team approach, overall strategy, lines and special plays. With fourteen women thrown together in one house, chaos could have ensued. Instead, the house was run like a well-oiled machine. Sleeping quarters were shared, shopping planned, food prepared, and dishes washed. This organized team approach in the house carried over onto the ice. We dominated our round robin games in terms of zone time and puck possession using all three lines throughout. Where we fell short was our ability to finish plays by putting the puck into the net often enough. As a result, we finished with 1 win, 1 loss and 1 tie. For me, the thought of finishing out of the top 4 teams and going home early without playing for a medal was disappointing. However, thanks to three teams earning the same win-loss record, our team just qualified for the gold medal game on the basis of one more goal scored. We would face the local favourites, the Kootenay Ice-Agers, who were favoured to win given a perfect record during the round robin.
The game proved memorable. Our Zone 4 team came out flying thanks to an energetic warm up in the Kimberley Civic Centre parking lot. The Ice-Agers were kept largely hemmed in their zone for much of the game, an unfamiliar experience for them. By the end of the first period, shots on goal were 18 to 3. We were up 1-0 thanks to a quick shot by Kerry Strongman (a player unsure if she was “good enough” to compete and then scored her second of the tournament). Kootenay were not used to playing catch up and pushed hard early in the second period. Midway through the period they evened the score on the powerplay. The large local crowd came alive and cheered them on. On our next shift, our line knew that we had to snuff out any momentum created by that goal and the noisy crowd. We forechecked ferociously, with our defencemen Sand Northrup pinching deep to keep the puck in what Coach Gwen called the “fun zone.” I circled and intercepted a clearing pass, putting it back into the corner. Right winger Julia McDonnell, who’d won her age group (60-65 years) in the Whistler Gran Fondo a week earlier, put it back to Northrup at the left point. Her point shot hit a body and then lay loose in the high slot. I picked it up and quickly shot it through the five-hole before being taken down by a sliding defenceman. The crowd went silent.
The final ten minutes was an intense affair. Kootenay tried to mount a comeback, feeding their two quick but very tired centres for end-to-end rushes. A couple more penalties were handed out to Coach Gwen, playing on defence, the third for body checking and “being too competitive” according to the older male referee (it’s hard to believe he would make such a remark during the men’s tournament). With three minors, our coach and steadying presence throughout the week was tossed from the game with 3:30 left to play. By then, however, we were well versed in our roles and continued the play our game, hardly allowing the Ice-Agers to enter our zone, let alone mount any serious offence. Four games in four days also meant they were pretty much spent.
When the buzzer finally went, it was an emotional moment for me. A day earlier, we would have been grateful to play in the bronze medal game. Here we were winning the gold and I had had my Crosby moment. We received our medals from Carol Niedermeyer, mother of former NHL’ers Scott and Rob. The Canadian anthem was played. It was all too perfect for a team of 55+ women who had come together less than a week earlier.
Pioneers once again: “Paving the way for the girls and women coming up behind us”
With the completion of the inaugural 55+ BC Games women’s hockey tournament, the goal of parity with the men’s game has moved a little forward in BC. With six teams competing, and such an exciting gold medal final, women’s hockey has surely now secured a place for itself at the Games. Already the games organizers have confirmed that the two winners from next year’s tournament in Kelowna would compete at the Canada 55+ Games in 2020. Going forward, the number of 55+ female players in BC available to compete should increase in number each year, given the growth of the female game since the 1990s, and thus the larger pool of players to draw from. The number of teams and competition level will undoubtedly improve as teams become more selective, and players bring skills gained from better coaching and ice times. These are benefits that this year’s inaugural team did not have had access to.
However, it was clear that all the women who competed in this inaugural tournament have experienced something very special. They played with a strong sense of making history. The campaigners and organizers, buoyed by the participation of these first six teams, have forged a new path which will now be available for younger female players when they eventually reach 55+. It is also the latest chapter in the ongoing story of this generation of female hockey players as pioneers. During the 1970s and 1980s, many of these women fought to establish female hockey teams and leagues. During the 1990s, they led the call, under human rights legislation, for BC municipalities to allocate a fairer share of ice times and other resources to female players. And now they have fought for the right to compete as older women. I shared the ice last week with a remarkable group of hockey players from across BC.