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By Barbara Ravel
On Saturday June 19, 2021, “more than sixty volunteers, coaches and players took part in the first Women’s Hockey Summit /Sommet du hockey féminin. During this day of discussion and exchange, many observations and recommendations were shared in the hopes of developing women’s hockey to its full potential” (Centre 21.02). The Summit was organized by Centre 21.02 and focused on women’s hockey in Québec (though its content can certainly be applied to other contexts). It consisted of several panels and discussions in smaller groups that were, with one partial exception, exclusively conducted in French. (Author’s Note: The quote above and the one at the end were provided by the Centre in both English and French on social media. Quotes from the summit were translated from French). Centre 21.02 is a non-profit organization that was founded in 2019 as the only “High performance hockey Centre recognized by the competent authorities, namely Hockey Quebec” and is “housed at the Verdun Auditorium in Montreal” (Centre 21.02, 2021). BFL Canada and Sun Life are founding partners and Geoff Molson of the Montréal Canadiens is also one the Centre’s strategic partners (Centre21.02, 2021). Centre 21.02 is home to Team Bauer from the PWHPA. Marie-Philip Poulin, Ann-Renee Desbiens, Laura Stacey, Ann-Sophie Bettez, and Jessie Eldridge were some of the players allowed to practice and prepare for the long awaited and only showcase of the PWHPA’s 2020-2021 Secret Dream Gap Tour in Canada. It is because of Centre 21.02 that Team Bauer’s players were able to train together during the pandemic while Team Sonnet (Toronto) and Team Scotiabank (Calgary) ran into significantly more hurdles under Covid-19 protocols. Arguably, Centre 21.02 was a big reason why Team Bauer brought home the first ever Secret Cup as champions of the Canadian leg of the Secret Dream Gap Tour.
Despite some technical difficulties due to holding an entire event online, the day more or less followed its initial schedule. After 10 minutes of speeches from different politicians and partners, as well as a short video of the Centre with upbeat music, Danièle Sauvageau, the Centre’s President and former Team Canada Head Coach (she led Canada to its first Olympic gold medal on February 21, 2002, the date eventually becoming part of the Centre’s name), gave us a short recap of what the Centre was responsible for during the last year: 100+ training sessions, 33 players participating in on-ice practices, one championship, and multiple players on the Olympic centralization roster. All during a pandemic.
The first presentation was by two women from Égale Action, a non-profit organization that is dedicated to women in sport and physical activity in Québec. The focus of the 25-minute presentation was on gender equity in sport and more precisely on how to recruit and retain girls and women in sport. They highlighted numbers from Québec in terms of participation as athletes and numbers in administrative/leadership positions (e.g., head coach, assistant coach). They notably emphasized the importance of having at least a “roughly equal zone” (a “zone paritaire” in French) if perfect equity (“parité parfaite”) is not possible. They defined this zone as an environment in which “the number of women and men doesn’t go lower than 40% and doesn’t exceed 60% in terms of representation.” In this context, they argued, everyone’s voice can be heard despite fewer women being present, for instance.
The presenters added that “it wasn’t just about men and women [being equally represented]”, that they were also cognizant of the notion of intersectionality, though with them appearing both white like all the Summit’s invited speakers (one was Black but wasn’t part of the official program — more on that later), and participants who had their video on also appearing to be white, we should question the application of intersectionality.
One of the presentation’s strengths, in my opinion, was the many resources that they mentioned were available on their website for teams or organizations to use freely. The audience was also informed that they could find similar tools on Canadian Women and Sport’s website with the advantage of said resources then being offered in both English and French. The presentation was followed by a quick recap by Stéphanie Poirier, one of the Centre’s coaches, who notably highlighted how many women were either coaches or regional presidents/member of Hockey Québec’s executive team (the answer is 2.8% and 0% respectively).
The first panel was on the future of professional women’s hockey and consisted of three panelists: Melody Davidson, formerly with Hockey Canada in different capacities (e.g., Team Canada Head Coach in 2006 and 2010, Team Canada General Manager) and now with Own the Podium; Caroline Ouellette, four-time Olympic champion (2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014), former Team Canada captain (2014), and currently Associate Head Coach of the Concordia Stingers women’s hockey team; Isabelle Leclaire, former Team Canada player and first and only Head Coach of the Université de Montréal Carabins women’s hockey team since 2008. Danièle Sauvageau acted as moderator for the panel asking questions and summarizing/translating along the way. It was the only portion of the day that included English.
The three panelists suggested key elements that were needed in order to develop women’s hockey at the highest level: more full-time coaching positions; mentorship to help former players transition to coaching; hubs similar to the one in Montréal across the country; and discussions between the PWHPA and the NWHL to eventually only have one professional league.
Two main themes guided the first small group discussions: the promotion of girls’ hockey and the path to the highest level. Participants were asked to join one of the four groups available and then reflect on several questions related to girls’ hockey (e.g., how to develop girls’ hockey in primary school aged girls) and the elite level (e.g., what kind of support is needed for female players).
That’s where things got interesting! My intention was only to attend the Summit and listen to the panels and discussions. Things changed when I realized that I was in a group with Caroline Ouellette and that she was the only one with her video on. We were 9 individuals at the time in the group and she was waiting so I had to be supportive and decided to put my video on too. As Courtney Szto later said, I had been promoted! Our group ended up being composed of dozens of individuals but only three of us besides Ouellette, the moderator, had their video on and participated in the discussions, taking turns to answer after each question, while a few others contributed in the chat. Throughout the entire discussion, Ouellette took notes as the Centre is planning on a writing a report on the day’s activities. I did my best to contribute as a former hockey player, researcher, and parent of two children, even though they are not hockey players. One of the other two participants was Nathalie Déry, a former Les Canadiennes de Montréal player, now coach, and she, rightfully so, shared a lot of insight on both topics. In terms of girls’ hockey participation, suggestions included not only targeting competitive hockey but also recreational hockey if we want to increase participation among girls, and to garner increased support from Hockey Québec for girl’s hockey. With regards to the development of elite players, the first concern was early detection and specialization with examples abound of “late bloomers” (e.g., Ouellette herself, Kim St-Pierre, Ann-Sophie Bettez) or multi-sport athletes (e.g., Noémie Marin in softball and hockey). Having experts providing support to athletes early in their development seemed crucial with nutrition and mental training being mentioned. Media coverage of women’s hockey and a professional league were added to the conversation. For the last question, how gender equity could be reached, I suggested that girls’ and women’s hockey needed more diversity and strategies to attract and retain participants from different backgrounds with the goal, in my opinion, to not reproduce the model created by boys’ and men’s hockey but to be better in terms of inclusion of BIPOC players.
After a much appreciated lunch break, the participants reconvened for the Summit’s second panel with three players: Kim St-Pierre, former Team Canada goalie, three-time Olympic champion 2002, 2006 and 2010 (she was the one protecting Canada’s net for the final game of the 2002 Olympics) and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee (2020); Ann-Renée Desbiens, current Team Canada and Team Bauer goalie, identified by Danièle Sauvageau as Canada’s current number one goalie; and Audrey-Anne Veillette, forward for the Université de Montréal Carabins who had practiced with Team Bauer in the last year. For this panel, “Reaching new heights in women’s hockey with three players”, athletes representing three different generations of athletes with St-Pierre as the past, Desbiens the present, and Veillette the future of the game, were invited to share their perspective on the game. Participants were inspired by St-Pierre’s and Desbiens’ persistence as both goalies were cut from their respective teams before establishing themselves as starting goalies and playing at the highest level for Team Canada. There was also a discussion about what makes a good teammate where Ann-Sophie Bettez and Lauriane Rougeau were notably praised for their professionalism and commitment to their Montréal team after being left out of Team Canada’s centralization roster for the Olympics shortly before the PWHPA’s Secret Cup.
For the last small group discussions, participants were divided in advance into four groups alphabetically but the improved organization didn’t extend to the moderator for the group I was a part of, since a woman had to step up to moderate the exchanges until the man initially assigned to this task arrived and took over. I was surprised that a man, regardless of his qualifications (he worked for Montréal’s Sport Council), was responsible for leading the discussions in the first place when the intentions behind the Summit were to have more women involved in all aspects of the women’s game. The discussions revolved, ironically, around leadership in women’s hockey and the people participating were individuals involved in women’s hockey in different capacities (e.g., coach, manager) and different locations, mostly from the province of Québec but not exclusively. It therefore seemed like a wasted opportunity to put a woman in a position of leadership, a woman who otherwise did a great job at moderating while she was in charge.
The day ended like it started: with Danièle Sauvageau, the Centre 21.02’s President, wrapping up the Summit. After mentioning that the Centre would write a report on the day’s activities and announcing that a second Summit was planned for May 2022, Sauvageau focused on what was next for the Centre: a series of games in the fall with their PWHPA team and a Women’s Hockey Day in Québec on November 13. She also invited Kevin Raphael, a public figure from Québec and the only Black (and non-white) guest speaker of the Summit, to talk about his donation to the Centre that will help finance a U16 camp this summer. Kevin Raphael is one of women’s hockey biggest fans. He directed Gap Year, a series of three videos on women’s hockey (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sVUvPTF7xQ), regularly invites players on his podcast, Sans Restriction (https://baladoquebec.ca/sans-restriction), and now donated enough money to pay for a camp for young female players. I must say that Kevin Raphael was the best promoter for the Centre’s current donation campaign as one could not only feel inspired by his enthusiasm and involvement with the game but, more generally, with the Centre’s work and mission. The Centre 21.02, “the first recognized centre of excellence in women’s hockey in the country and the first permanent training facility in Québec, Canada for elite players”, certainly set the bar very high with the organization of this first Summit and, despite a few bumps and shortcomings, we can look forward to the future with hope. The Montréal Canadiens may have lost the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning but Montréal, with Team Bauer and the Centre 21.02, is definitely a winning city.