Women’s hockey growing by leaps and bounds

By Jeff Bromley
It is now safe to say that Women’s hockey is no longer on the peripheral of the hockey world. For years looked upon as a novelty on the outside looking in, female hockey is now coming into its own. The names on the roster of the Canadian National Women’s team are now more of the household variety rather than the obscure. Hayley Wickenheiser, the two sport Olympic star who participated on both the Women’s Olympic Hockey team in Nagano in ’98 and the Women’s Softball squad in Sydney is a given. But other names are starting to rise into the limelight in their own right. Names such as Cassie Campbell a three-year veteran of the national squad, Charlene Labonte a goaltender vying for a spot on the national team who played major junior last season with the Acadie-Bathhurst Titan of the Quebec Major Junior League or newly appointed head coach of the national team, Daniele Sauvageau who spent a year as an assistant coach with the Montreal Rocket of the QMJHL last season. Slowly but surely, women in hockey are becoming hockey stars in their own right.

Cassie Campbell, three-year veteran of the National team and resident poster girl of the national squad says that these trips into the small towns of the West as well as the big games like the match-up with U.S. before the NHL All-Star game next week only enhance and expose the Women’s game. “I think that anytime that you get to mix with the NHL guys and get the exposure that they get it’s going to bring a lot of publicity to our game. With the U.S. winning the gold in Nagano it’s going to be a big hype down there – it’s going to be exciting,” said Campbell. With the World Championships looming and the Salt Lake City Olympics on the horizon next year, the competition is becoming fierce between the women to make the national squad. Although Campbell is a veteran, she’s not taking anything for granted. “There’s some great girls coming up from the Under-22 program and really from across the country and for us older girls, even though I’m only 27, we really have to keep pushing ourselves,” said Campbell. “You know, I found it easier to make the team the first time than to stay on it, so that’s kind of my challenge right now.”

Hayley Wickenheiser, rated by the Hockey News as the world’s number one women’s player, emphasizes the importance of tours to small Canadian towns such as Cranbrook in order to both promote the game and give encouragement to aspiring female hockey players that there is goals to be striving for in Women’s hockey. “One of the reasons why we do these western tours to small towns is to promote the game and to get a chance to showcase female hockey and inspire young girls,” said Wickenheiser. “We’re role models to these girls and we take that responsibility very seriously.”

The Cranbrook Colonels Old-timers hockey club were the main thrust in bringing the international spectacle to the Key City. Game two of a five game exhibition in Western Canada between the Canadian Women’s national team and Team Sweden, a five game precursor to a two game set with the U.S. National Team in Red Deer and then the day before the NHL’s All-Star game in Denver. The final result of Wednesday’s contest at the Rec/Plex was an 8-0 handling of Team Sweden by the Canadian girls in front of an announced crowd of 2524. The main benefactor of the proceeds from the game was the Cranbrook Regional Hospital Foundation. The foundation’s administrator, Janice Munro says that the positives from the generated income from the international match are many. “The Colonels have a few other local charities but the larger part of the money raised comes to the Cranbrook Hospital Foundation,” said Munro. “The money is directed towards the diagnostic imaging department which includes mammography, catscan, ultrasound, X-ray and nuclear medicine, specifically for equipment purchase.” The foundation has a mandate to raise money to purchase equipment for hospital programs says Munro. The donations are totally directed by the donor themselves are fully focused on the foundation itself, as opposed to being swallowed up by other needs the hospital might have.

The popularity of Women’s hockey is now not just relegated to the National program. The vision of a national women’s hockey league is now a becoming a reality. Although in it’s infancy and limited to mainly the eastern part of the country with the seven teams, there are three major club programs in the west located in Vancouver (Griffins), Calgary (Oval Extreme) and Edmonton (Chimos). National team Coach Daniele Sauvageau is enthusiastic about the prospects of a fully national women’s league in near future on the scale of the WNBA in the U.S. “It (the league) is called the National Women’s Hockey League right now and it is getting better. The vision is to have by 2005-06 some sort of popular league like the basketball in the U.S.,” said the former Montreal police officer turned hockey coach. “Right now we are working on the structure as well as university level to bring up and raise that level of play. We would like to have at least four to six teams to be able to play at this level. Right now there is about eighty players who are at the international level and we are starting to see more and more. I think another four-year cycle would be realistic.”

Swedish Phenom -If some of you aspiring female hockey players needed inspiration then consider this. The age of the goaltender for the Swedish team playing against a powerful Canadian squad was fourteen. Playing with and against older players, some of which are twice her age, Kim Martin doesn’t turn fifteen until the end of February. Stopping 29 of 35 shots in just over two periods of work, the talented young goalie played extremely well and bodes well for the future of Swedish hockey. Despite the setback of an unspecified injury that forced her to withdraw from the game minutes in the third frame, she managed to garner player of the game honors for the Swedish squad. She did let in six goals but if not for the talent of the diminutive teenager, the score would have been much more lopsided….. National team veteran Vicky Sunohara was chosen as the Canadian player of the game with a goal and two assists. Believe or not, the thirty-year-old Scarborough, Ont. native was a member of the national team in its inception in 1989. Sunohara made the club for the very first Women’s World Championship in 1990 but was cut in 1992 and 1994. Perseverance paid off for Sunohara as she then again made the team in 1997 in time to earn a silver at the Nagano Olympics.