Day 6

On the Other Side of the Glass: Why more middle-aged women are taking up Canada's game

When Day 6 producer Laurie Allan was growing up girls weren't allowed to play hockey. Today, she says more women are learning to play the game they missed out on as kids.

More women are learning to play hockey, a game they missed out on as kids

Alice Westby, left, Laurie Allan, centre, and Lori Johnson, right, at a Skills and Drills session at Centre Ice Training Academy in Burlington, Ont. (Karen Liota/Kaltoonz Kreative)

Alice Westby has transformed from hockey mom to hockey player. And she's proud of it.

For years Westby has cheered on her daughters and her husband as she watched them play hockey.

"I started to wonder and ask myself questions, what would it be like for me to take up something like this? I was 42. I thought it was a bit ridiculous to start hockey in my 40s," explained Westby.

"But the more I asked around the more I found out about how available it was to me. It became less ridiculous and more of a why not. Why not go for it?"

And so Westby gathered a group of her fellow hockey moms and they joined a women's beginner 3-on-3 league with Harrigan Hockey in Burlington, Ont.

Westby and her teammates are part of a growing number of women taking up the sport later in life.

I'd always had a bit of a resentment deep down [about] why was I always forced to take piano lessons and stay at home.​- Alice Westby, hockey player

Harrigan Hockey runs leagues and clinics for girls and women and was founded by Jana Harrigan, a former player with the now-defunct Canadian Women's Hockey League (CWHL).

"I started a hockey league for beginner women because I had a few moms come up to me and [say] they wished there was girls hockey like there is now back when they were kids. And that was kind of my 'ah-ha' moment," said Harrigan.

"That's when Harrigan Hockey, our beginner 3-on-3 league, began."

Playing 3-on-3 is an easy way to enter the world of hockey because the rinks are typically smaller and there are fewer rules, such as having no offside.

Harrigan started small, but this year she has had to add an additional night of games because she's had so many more women register to play.

It's a similar situation down the highway in Hamilton, where the Hamilton Women's Hockey League (HWHL) has also had to add teams to their league this year. 

All told, there are more than 1,000 women playing in leagues throughout Hamilton and Burlington.

Alice Westby practices her stick handling skills at Centre Ice Training Academy in Burlington, Ont. Westby learned to play hockey at age 42. (Karen Liota/Kaltoonz Kreative)

First steps

Westby recalls the first time she stepped onto the ice for a hockey game.

"I remember that my mouth was really dry," she said, laughing. "I was so nervous. I started to question if I knew what I was doing, partly because I had encouraged other moms and we all said, 'Yeah, let's go for it,' and we formed a team and we just kind of jumped in feet first."

Harrigan says Westby's fears are common among first-time players.

"Taking that first step from land to ice, it seems to be a big fear for everyone," explained Harrigan. "But once they get out there, those fears just seem to melt away and the learning begins."

Hockey coach Tommy Gilligan encourages player Lori Johnson. Johnson took up hockey at age 42. (Karen Liota/Kaltoonz Kreative)

Westby doesn't remember who won that first game, but she does remember the sense of relief — and the sense of joy.

"One thing I do remember is getting off the ice after the game and all you could hear was [the other women yelling]: 'That was so much fun!'"

Missed opportunities

Lori Johnson is also a convert from hockey mom to hockey player, and like Westby she took up the game when she was 42. 

Johnson explains that she took her sons to a hockey school and really liked the coach, Tommy Gilligan. So when he started a beginner women's skills clinic, she jumped at the chance to join.

Johnson grew up on the U.S. west coast and wasn't exposed to hockey as a girl, which is why she never learned to play the game or to skate.

"I was very, very nervous," Johnson said. "I kept going every week and ... nine years later I should be a lot better but I don't really care. I have fun with it and that's what I get out of it."

It is so much fun to watch one another. Encourage one another.- Alice Westby

For Westby, not playing hockey as a girl was more of a cultural issue. 

"My dad told me that being immigrants to Canada — they came in the early '70s — they weren't totally aware of what the protocol was or what the allowances were for registering kids in organized sports, and girls at that," Westby explained.

And though she now understands why her parents didn't involve her in sports, "I'd always had a bit of a resentment deep down [about] why was I always forced to take piano lessons and stay at home."

"It was an unawareness, or not fully appreciating, what the opportunities could be for me with them being newer to Canada and not being fully culturally aware," said Westby.

Being on the ice

Though they didn't grow up playing hockey, both Westby and Johnson now love the sport.

"The rink that I play at offers a skills [and] drills class every Saturday, and I can't go every Saturday but I try to go as often as I can. And I find that's one of my favourite hours of the week because we're all out there, we're all doing the same drills, we're all crossing over, doing our hockey stops, taking our shots," said Westby. 

"And it is so much fun to watch one another. Encourage one another. I love screaming, 'Go Lori!' as she goes down the ice, because we've seen each other develop. We've seen how far we've come."

It's a sentiment Johnson shares.

Day 6 producer Laurie Allan, who took up hockey at age 44, practices during Skills and Drills training. (Karen Liota/Kaltoonz Kreative)

"You go into a class thinking, 'Oh my God, can everyone skate here? I can barely skate.' But if you get that encouragement from the other women, it is such a nice feeling. It makes you feel comfortable and it makes you feel like, 'I can do this,'" said Johnson.

"Then you progress, and you learn more, and then you become that person cheering the other person on who's just started and it's a very good feeling."

Both Johnson and Westby take pride in what they've accomplished as hockey players. 

"I walk with a little more confidence," said Westby. "I feel so tough. I feel bad ass."

The hockey community 

The sense of community that has come with playing hockey is something Westby, Harrigan and Johnson all share.

Harrigan has played since she was a girl and says she's made lifelong friendships through hockey. It's also how she met her husband and they now share their love of the game with their children.

It's a really special feeling being part of a team.- Lori Johnson

Neither Westby nor Johnson grew up playing sports, so hockey is their first experience being part of a team.

"Hanging out socially, getting to know one another and then encouraging each other as moms, with all the stuff going on in our life ... just the extension of community through playing hockey has been amazing." said Westby.

"I love being part of a community, and to have that through something that I took on because I just wanted to challenge myself was so great. What a wonderful surprise and outcome I got out of joining hockey."

"If you're thinking about it, just do it. There are so many opportunities now to get out there and learn [and] learn to skate," added Johnson.

"You will not regret it. It's a really special feeling being part of a team."

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