In Depth

Women's hockey aiming to become lifelong sport

Hockey is a lifelong sport for males, and there's no shortage of recreational leagues around the country. But the goal for those involved in women's hockey is to make hockey a lifelong sport for females, too.

Goal is to get girls playing sport beyond minor hockey

Danielle Goyette, shown here in 2008, is a current assistant coach with the Canadian women's hockey team and former national squad member. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

OTTAWA – From her perch high in SBP Arena, Hockey Canada's top female executive Kalli Quinn looked out and saw the future of women's hockey.

There was a record-setting crowd of 18,013 on hand for Canada's 8-0 win over Finland at the world women's hockey championship Friday and the vast majority of fans were girls in their teens playing on 375 teams at a provincial championship tournament.

"The people in the stands today are the people who will be playing when they are 30 and 40, and however long they want to play,'' says Quinn, the director of the national team for Hockey Canada.

However long depends on access, however.

Hockey is a lifelong sport for males, and there's no shortage of recreational leagues — so-called beer leagues — around the country. There are loads of examples of men who quit playing in their teens, then laced up their skates again in their later years and now play into their 70s and older.

The goal for those involved in women's hockey is to make hockey a lifelong sport for females. The aim is to make sure the thousands of teenagers who saw Canada beat Finland keep playing when they are finished with minor hockey.

The choices, however, are limited.  

There are some recreational leagues across the country, usually in big cities. As for the hinterland, female recreational hockey practically doesn't exist, unless you consider the fact that some women play on the same teams as men.

"There has to be more leagues starting because these girls will be looking for a place to play,'' says Vicky Sunohara , former Canadian national team member and current head coach of the University of Toronto women's squad. "We need to do something. We have to take care of this for those who want to keep playing."

Consider these numbers:

In 1995-96, there were 19,050 females playing minor hockey in Canada, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation's registration survey. That number jumped to 37,748 after the first women's Olympic hockey tournament in Japan in 1998. Then four years later after Canada won its first Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City, Utah, the number jumped to 73,791, and increased to 86,675 in 2011-12.

While women's hockey remains the fastest growing segment of Hockey Canada's registration numbers, the growth of women's recreational leagues pales in comparison, especially measured against the explosion of so-called beer leagues for males.

Taking matters into their own hands

Some people have taken matters into their own hands.

Fred Stefaniuk of Toronto grew so frustrated with trying to find a league for his daughters to play in that he founded his own eight-team league in Toronto. Hockey Canada worked with some adult female recreational leagues this year with the aim of educating people about how there are, in fact, places for women to play.

"As much as we educate them, they do not know there are options out there,'' said Quinn. "The more we talk about it, the more we let people know there are options out there, the more they will begin to realize that they can do it, beyond school, beyond college.

"Once you get a handful of women who want to do so, who will go after the ice time and will target other females to come out and play, once you get that one group, it is contagious. If we get mothers and sisters and aunts playing, it is an opportunity to let people know that it is OK for women to play hockey."

Ice time in an issue that's common across the country partly because of the growth of girls hockey and the so-called male beer leagues.

There are other issues.

Team Canada assistant coach Danielle Goyette feels motherhood plays a role.

"It will always be different because men can play and they do not have to stop. Guys don't carry a baby for nine months,'' said Goyette. "That's when your life changes and women face tougher decisions whether to resume their playing careers because of family issues."

The irony is this: it was adult women who were the pioneers of female hockey and the game has gotten younger and more competitive, and now the issue is the lack of options for the former.

Both Goyette and Sunohara are Olympic gold medallists who no longer play, although they both vow to start again soon.

"I don't think it has to be at a top level, just play,'' said Sunohara. "Being on the ice once a week, the dressing room camaraderie, going out for a beer after, those are the big things."

Adds Goyette: "These days it is hard for women to find a place to play. You have the women's hockey league but I feel something is missing. We have more and more women wanting to play hockey and I would say in a couple of years we will have a lot more.

"The game is still growing at an older level."