My Not-So-Glorious Hockey Career
But then, winning isn’t everything for the Caledon Women’s Hockey League.
“She shoots, she scores!” This feminine take on Foster Hewitt’s famous line wasn’t running through my head as I “skated” down the ice, “stickhandling” the puck. I glanced up and there was the goalie. Sporting a green jersey, enormous shin pads and a white mask, she seemed to fill the net. Her knees were bent, her stick protectively at the ready on the crease line, her glove opening and closing like a crab’s claw. “Come on, girl,” she seemed to be saying. “Let me have it. See if you can get one through the five hole. Just try.”
Silence pervaded the empty arena. My teammates held their collective breath. No one stood between me and the net. I had been chosen to take a penalty shot, the first of my short hockey career. Truth be told, this shot was about to be my first of any kind on a hockey net. It was also my first time on hockey skates and my first time using a hockey stick on ice. Not very Canadian, eh? But true.
Slowly, painfully and entirely without grace, I made my way down the ice looking at the puck, then at the goalie and then leaning on my stick for support. Puck. Goalie. Stick. Puck. Goalie. Stick.
Despite my lack of skill, Janet Eagleson had invited me to play a game with Armstrong Petroleum, one of eight teams that play once a week in the Caledon Women’s Hockey League. And damn their collective souls, but didn’t they give me the full hockey-meal deal. I “played” forward in the first period, muddled my way through defence in the second, and prayed no puck would come near the net when I was stuffed into goalie gear for the third.
My teammates, all of whom had seemed like such lovely women in the change room, whizzed by me. I felt like Unwile E. Coyote surrounded by a flock of Road Runners. My brain was willing, but I could gain no traction on my pickless, and borrowed, hockey skates. I couldn’t imagine anyone skating faster or shooting the puck harder than these mad women.
The Caledon Women’s Hockey League (19 and older, non-contact) represents what’s good – and what’s problematic – about women’s hockey in Canada. The number of female hockey players in this country is rising like a Bobby Hull wrist shot. Since 1995–96, shortly before women’s hockey made its debut at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the number of girls and young women playing minor hockey has more than quadrupled and now tops 86,000. But the number of spaces in women’s recreational leagues hasn’t expanded at the same pace. In Caledon, for instance, more than 30 women are on a waiting list, hoping to find a permanent spot in the town’s winter league. “And we don’t take beginners,” says league president MaryLou Hurley. “These are women who have played before.”
The surge in interest delights Kim Malcher, one of the league’s referees. Now 33 and the mother of two youngsters, Kim is arguably the best female player Caledon has produced. From 2000 to 2002 she was a member of Canada’s Under 22 national team.
“There are many highlights to my career,” Kim says, but her favourite was the first time she sported a Team Canada jersey. “When I stepped out onto the ice, I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t imagine how I was going to actually play.” In a country that boasts a wealth of women’s hockey talent, Kim didn’t make the final cut for the Olympic team, but she still ranks among the best female hockey players in the world.
In the 1990s it was Kim’s mother, Lyn Malcher, and a handful of other women who got women’s hockey going in Caledon. They donned their figure skates, borrowed helmets and picked up sticks. The idea caught on, more players joined, and as their skills improved, so did their equipment.
Though it took a few years for the league to adopt a full-equipment rule, the women added padding as injuries demanded. “Players would don an elbow pad here or a shin pad there to cover up their bruises from the previous week’s game,” Lyn says.
For these women the camaraderie with teammates is a big part of the sport’s attraction. “It sounds clichéd,” says Armstrong Petroleum’s team rep Amanda Schaefer, whose mother was on the opposing team the night I took part, “but I play because of all the other great women.”
My experience confirmed this attitude. Despite my abominable skating skills, and even though Armstrong Petroleum was behind 2–0 at the end of the second period, no one flinched as I skated over to take my place in net at the start of the third. Everyone on the team gave me the encouraging little glove-to-glove punch you see on Hockey Night in Canada.
The women are serious about playing and like working up a good sweat, but they aren’t obsessed with winning. “We have a league draft to make up the teams,” explains MaryLou. This system ensures the teams are balanced, each with a similar number of skilled and less skilled players. “It’s great for the newer players to play with the more experienced ones,” she says.
And then there was the penalty shot. I have a hard time imagining another team nominating someone of my calibre – Rick Mercer excepted – to take this shot. But there I was at centre ice. Only the opposing team’s goalie and that damned stretch of ice stood between me and a Hollywood ending to my nascent hockey career.
Slowly, I made my ungainly way down the ice. Puck. Goalie. Stick. Puck. Goalie. Stick. Until finally, she shoots, she … well, I didn’t end up covered in glory, but true to form, the goalie graciously thanked me for not scoring.
The Udder Tournament
To see Canadian women’s hockey in action, check out the Caledon Women’s Hockey League’s annual Udder Tournament. Organized in memory of the late Donna deBoer, one of the league’s founders, the tourney takes place in Caledon East from November 8 to 10.
You can also follow the Caledon Women’s League on facebook.com/caledonwomenshockeyleague