Girls hockey will have the spotlight on it like never before in Red Deer when the city hosts the Esso Cup, the female major midget national championship, in April.
The hope is that this will not be the pinnacle for the sport in the region, but rather the boost that pushes it to the next level.
Girls hockey has come a long way in the last 20 years in Central Alberta, going from an exception with girls only able to play on boys teams to gaining equal footing with male counterparts. Now the goal is to try to match participation numbers of boys.
“Hosting the Esso Cup, we’re hoping that can give girls hockey a lot of exposure in Central Alberta and here in Red Deer,” said Red Deer Minor Hockey general manager Dallas Gaum. “All of the local schools are going to be invited to games, so we’re hoping that will kick-start us again.”
The end goal is to have at least two girls teams at each age level. The association has done that for bantam and midget, but is short of the goal at novice, atom and peewee levels.
Getting girls attracted to the game early is the key to future growth. In boys hockey, there are more players at young ages and even given attrition, the program still has a deep pool to select from for elite teams in the older age groups.
Red Deer’s top girls teams like the midget AAA Sutter Fund Chiefs have a recruitment territory that stretches from Ponoka in the north to Olds in the south and from Stettler in the east to the B.C. border. Still, tryouts drew only a few dozen girls, where the boys midget AAA Optimist Chiefs get well in excess of 100 players at tryouts.
“To have that size of area and have 40 girls try out for a midget AAA team is a little disappointing,” said Sutter Fund Chiefs assistant coach Curtis Scutchings, whose team is out to a 10-1-0-3 start in the Alberta Major Midget Female Hockey League.
At the younger levels, one of the major issues is that if girls don’t make their desired A team, they often drop out altogether.
The local association is examining several initiatives to attract new people to the game. Among them is allowing kids to test drive the sport for free with equipment supplied for them.
Nevertheless, after almost two decades of seriously pushing for equality on the ice, participation and the level of play continue to improve.
The overall ability of female players is at an all-time high. There are a number of reasons.
First is the changing attitude toward female athletics. Organizers and athletes are making more concerted efforts to develop on-ice skill and everything that goes with it. For example, local minor hockey has joined with an academy program out of Saskatchewan’s College of Notre Dame that preaches everything from skill development to dry land training to nutrition.
The development of all-girl leagues from the youngest ages to AAA levels at bantam and midget also encourage the girls to stay with it and develop together.
“A lot of them are more comfortable being themselves when they get to be with the girls,” said Scutchings. “They don’t have to fit in with the boys, they can actually be themselves.
“A lot of them will stay with hockey and be more relaxed and enjoy more success when they can be with the girls. When you’re with the boys, there’s a different dynamic that develops.”
Another big reason for continued development is the options available to players after minor hockey.
Scholarships to American and Canadian post-secondary programs are a major draw as players seek an education or to just continue playing at the next level.
But the system is not perfect, and girls still do not enjoy the same equality or chance to play as boys.
In the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference, for example, there are nine men’s teams and just four women’s teams. Olds College plans to start a women’s program for the 2015-16 season. That’s a critical addition to the league, given the possibility that Edmonton’s MacEwan University will jump to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport competition once their new downtown arena is built.
It’s an issue that Red Deer College athletic director Keith Hansen takes very seriously. He is especially concerned about institutions that have more women than men in their student population, but have only a men’s hockey team.
“To be honest with you, I have a pretty big problem with that,” said the father of three daughters. “I know I have made that clear with some of my colleagues around the league and I think that’s something we have to work really hard on as a league to really push to get that increased.”
In the U.S., Title IX legislation makes it mandatory for schools to offer the same number of athletic scholarships for women as they do men. There is no such regulation in Canada.
“I also think, honestly, the public opinion and the students and people within the hockey community should be putting some pressure on some of these administrations to get some more gender equity,” said Hansen, pointing out that while RDC lost its men’s team for several years, it was important to keep their women’s team going.
“This is Canada, and if there is one place I do think gender equality is not just given lip service, it would be in our country. It’s something that is imperative.”
The players have noticed this discrepancy and they’re not impressed.
“It’s really frustrating,” said RDC Queens captain Rachael Hoppins. “As much as girls hockey is developing, it’s still nowhere near men’s hockey, obviously. But Olds is getting a team next year, which is awesome … hopefully people will see it’s developing and people will want to buy in to help expand this league, because it is a great league — we just need more teams.”
The next step is the development of female hockey beyond the college level.
It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about how much they loved watching the women at the Olympics and how entertaining the hockey was, but then quickly dismiss the sport for another four years.
But people do not have to travel far to watch these same players compete during the years in between Olympics. The Canadian Women’s Hockey League has five teams, including one in Calgary.
However, fans are either largely unaware of the league or aren’t interested. Games draw no more than 500 and 700, according to a Canadian Press report a year ago.
At the college level, the Kings draw about twice as many fans per game as the Queens, even though the men play in Penhold and the women play at the Red Deer Arena.
Scutchings believes for the female game to be successful in the mainstream, former players must return as fans.
Hoppins, now in her fifth and final year of eligibility at RDC, just wants people to give it a chance.
“People think ‘Oh you guys don’t hit, it’s not real hockey,’ there’s such a stereotype around it,” she said. “If people just lose that and come and watch, it’s still a fast-paced game. Yeah we’re not throwing huge hits and we don’t shoot as hard maybe, but we’re still entertaining to watch.”
College marks the end of the line for competitive hockey for most players. However, Hansen says they are counting on many of those players becoming future coaches, right down to the grassroots level.
It’s the next step in the full development of the game.
It is where Hoppins sees her future in the game.
“I love this program, I want to give back any way I can and give back to Red Deer minor hockey, too, because it was part of my life,” she said. “I want women’s hockey to grow, so if I can give back in any way to help that, that’s my plan.”