Opinion

Captain Clutch and Canada's women hockey players deserve our support year round

There needs to be a cultural shift when it comes to hockey in Canada, where we don't see a men's game or a women's game, but rather just a game, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Vision is to support hockey, dismantle oppressive systems, and solidify a place for women's hockey

Marie-Philip Poulin, Canada's Captain Clutch, leads the women's hockey team into the Olympics in Beijing. (Getty Images)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

I will never forget the third period of the 2014 Olympic gold medal game in Sochi. I was sitting nervously on the edge of my sofa in the first period, anxious in the second and by the time the U.S. was beating Canada 2-1 late in the third, my hopes had slowly drained. 

But a now-famous play involving a goal post and the hockey gods sprung into action, preventing a likely third goal on Canada's open net after goaltender Shannon Szabados had been pulled to increase Canada's offensive attack. After that particular play, there was a sense of reinvigoration. Marie-Philip Poulin, now lovingly called "Captain Clutch," scored with seconds left and then again in OT to clinch the win. I believe I screamed so loud I lost my voice — a totally normal occurrence for me during the Olympics, World Cups or championship games. 

WATCH | How a goalpost changed everything:

How a goal post changed everything for Canada at the 2014 Winter Olympics

5 years ago
Duration 2:40
Members of the Canadian women's hockey team recount how two inches of steel shifted momentum and helped the team win an Olympic gold medal in Sochi.

Canada was playing its fiercest competitor, most worthy opponent, neighbour to the south, and in many cases teammate in professional leagues: the United States. I am a huge fan of sports rivalries in sports and Canada vs. the U.S. in women's hockey is one of the most stunning and exciting rivalries in the game.

It can be argued that the competition in this particular sport has remained quite limited with the majority of the best players hailing from North America, with a few from Nordic countries in Europe and China. 

Despite the burgeoning growth of women's hockey all over the world, the undisputed queens hail from the U.S. and Canada. Canada is the reigning world champion after winning the IIHF tournament this past August.

As much as we laud our players, cheer when we remember their names, scream from our sofas when they score, we also have to recognize that Canada has failed its women hockey players. There is no sustainable domestic league in Canada for soccer, basketball or ice hockey. 

The CWHL shuttered in 2019 due to an "economically unsustainable" business model. I still haven't recovered from that heartbreak. 

There is of course the PWHPA. They hold a series of Dream Gap Tournaments that are showcases for fans and give these elite players (from both sides of the border) a chance to compete and shine in various cities across Canada and the U.S. The PWHPA's commissioner is none other than Canadian hockey legend Jayna Hefford.

The Premier Hockey Federation (formerly NWHL) expanded to Toronto in 2020. All of the teams of the PHF are based in the U.S.  Currently, the Toronto Six are at the top of the standings in that league. The Six boasts three Black women in important roles on the team: Mikyla Grant-Mentis was named the first Black MVP of the league, Krysti Clarke was named GM in June 2021, and Canadian hockey legend and Hall of Famer Angela James (yes, THE Angela James) is an assistant coach.

WATCH | Poulin scores beautiful OT winner in world championships final:

Poulin scores beautiful OT winner to clinch Canada gold at the worlds

1 year ago
Duration 2:22
Marie-Philip Poulin scored a fantastic goal to give Canada the 3-2 win and their first gold medal at the worlds since 2012.

There is no doubt that Canadian women's hockey players have inspired young players around the country. I attended a Rivalry Series game in Kingston, Ont., in November and had a conversation with a very new hockey player named Carlyn, who came to Kingston with her mom. She is part of a recreational league called the Small Fries Hockey Program in the west end of Toronto. Carlyn loves hockey. I was moved by her enthusiasm. She is a self-described good skater and says the best part of playing hockey is "having fun". But she also told me that her favourite player is Poulin. I feel similarly, Carlyn. 

I am not suggesting that women's hockey is without its own series of problems. Women players are in spaces where whiteness is normalized in hockey culture. Saroya Tinker, also of the Toronto Six, is using her place on the ice to create spaces for more racialized players and have candid conversations about race and hockey. Racism affects not just men's hockey and players like Tinker are working hard to dismantle those systems of oppression within the sport. 

Additionally, national team player Sarah Nurse, making her second appearance on the Olympic squad, is simultaneously holding it down for the musicians and racialized hockey players. 

The women players often work full-time jobs while training in the evenings and then compete on the weekends. Can we imagine what the Montreal Canadiens or the Ottawa Senators would look like in the standings if they had nine to five jobs, trained in the evenings then played on the weekends? Or arrange for childcare as primary caregivers

Canadian women's hockey players are in a different stratosphere yet we don't support them enough to help them lift off up off the ground. 

But before I continue to tear into a lack of support for women's athletes, I need to step back and interrogate my own priorities. Am I supporting the women's game or what my dear Burn It All Down co-host Jessica Luther called my "unfettered nationalism?" I look to the words of Dr. Courtney Szto, one of the most brilliant hockey academics in the country.

In a 2019 article published at Hockey and Society Dr. Szto explained that supporting the Canadian women's hockey team only is an extension of masculinity when it is done in the name of country and not sport. 

"To wear a Team Canada jersey and cheer for the Canadian women on the Olympic stage is not so much a show of feminism as it is an exercise of masculinity [although it can certainly be a show of feminism for some men.] It is a way to support the dominance of the nation [something for which boys/men have arguably been groomed] and women just happen to live within those boundaries — incidental inclusion, if you will."

But what about those of us who want to see women's hockey thrive beyond when we stand at the top of the podium? What needs to happen? According to Dr. Szto, men need to be involved beyond the closing ceremony and there needs to be a cultural shift.

The PWHPA players have had to play a series of exhibition games in lieu of a real hockey season. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Important to see women as whole beings'

"One of the less acknowledged benefits of creating sustainable women's hockey at a professional level may be that, as vital as it is for little girls to dream big, it is equally important for boys and men to see women as whole beings who are deserving of time, space, and attention. When men have grown up watching nothing but men's hockey, they see women's hockey as women's hockey. When little kids grow up watching women's hockey they just know it as hockey." 

The 23-women Canadian roster led by Poulin in Beijing has on it many of the best players in the world. We should support them by supporting the wider hockey community as well, not only because we love Canada but because we love the game. And no one is above the game.

We want hockey to succeed, right? By purchasing merchandise, buying tickets and supporting the teams, leagues and organizations for women and girls, we give women a shot. A shot we know will be electrifying and end in a win — especially if Poulin is involved.   

This doesn't mean that I will not be chirping my American friends when Canada plays the U.SA on Feb. 8th. But the vision is to support hockey, dismantle oppressive systems, and solidify a place for women's hockey all year round. Shot of maple syrup not included. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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