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Review

Women on Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada

By Wayne Norton

November 4, 2013

Review By David Mills

In January 1997 the Gateway, the University of Alberta’s student newspaper, reported on the first game played by the Pandas, the women’s hockey team: “it was fascinating to watch these women playing their hearts out, trying to break into a field that has been dominated solely by the male species since hockey was born.” Although women’s hockey was seen as a recent development, it has been around for a long time. In the 1890s, Lady Isobel Stanley, the daughter of the governor general, was a noted “hockeyist” and had her picture taken with a hockey stick and puck on the pond next to Government House in Ottawa. Women’s hockey was also played in Edmonton in that decade, and the University of Alberta iced teams from the First World War into the 1940s. The problem was not the limits placed on women’s participation in the sport but, rather, the limits placed on our historical memory. 

Wayne Norton’s Women on Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada tells the story of women’s hockey in British Columbia and Alberta from its beginnings to the mid-1930s when, due to declining popularity, most teams in both provinces ceased playing. Women’s hockey was largely forgotten until its revival in the 1990s. Norton restores our historical memory by telling us how the early game was played, following its development by focusing on specific teams. In the West Kootenays women’s hockey was played in Rossland, Nelson, and Grand Forks. Although teams sometimes scrambled to assemble a complement of seven players, competitive women’s hockey was played in these communities until 1916

The organization of women’s hockey was undertaken by one of hockey’s famous families – the Patricks – who had moved from Montreal to Nelson to establish a lumber company. While we know about the exploits of Frank and Lester Patrick, Norton describes how the three Patrick daughters began the Nelson Ladies’ Hockey Club in 1910. After the Patrick Lumber Company was sold in 1911, the family moved to the coast and founded a men’s professional league and built arenas with artificial ice in Victoria and Vancouver. Women’s teams quickly appeared in Victoria, New Westminster, and Vancouver, and they played in the new arenas. By 1918, the teams from Victoria and New Westminster had folded, but the Vancouver team, who had begun playing with hand-me-down uniforms from the Vancouver Millionaires and were later called the Swastikas, were challenged by a newly formed team that would become the dominant local squad over the next decade – the Amazons. The latter team included such notable players as Kathleen Carson, goalie Amelia Voitkevic, and Norah and Phebe Senkler, whose mother was the daughter of a former lieutenant-governor of British Columbia and whose father was a prominent Vancouver lawyer and Liberal Party official. The team was supported by Frank Patrick. The team’s reputation was made at the annual Banff Winter Carnival, where teams from British Columbia met rivals from Alberta, including the Calgary Regents and Edmonton Monarchs. The Amazons won the Alpine Cup in 1922, which was given to the “lady champions of western Canada,” and would appear in it each year, facing new opponents (with varying degrees of success) until the team disbanded in 1933. Norton also has chapters on women’s teams from Calgary, Fernie, and Edmonton, including the Rustlers, the only squad to defeat the Preston Rivulettes, the best women’s team in Canada during the 1930s. 

The author does an excellent job narrating the early history of women’s hockey in western Canada and describing a number of the teams that were formed. Norton has thoroughly mined the newspaper archives of this period, and Women on Ice includes almost forty superb black-and-white photos, many previously unpublished, which show many of the teams (with most of the players, unfortunately, left unnamed). This is the book’s strength and weakness. Like the sports reporters who commented on women’s hockey, Norton devotes sections to discussions of the cute or stereotypical team names, like “the Kewpies,” “the Hollies,” and “the Amazons.” There is a very good explanation, though, for why some women’s teams chose “Swastikas” as their team name and wore sweaters with that symbol (which meant good fortune) emblazoned on them. There are also more descriptions of what the players wore (e.g., the colours of the sweaters and skirts and the types of toques) than of the games themselves. As a result, while there is a detailed history of the Vancouver Amazons because newspaper sources are readily available, other teams, particularly those from smaller communities, are not so fortunate. Moreover, Norton is unwilling to speculate about the decline of women’s hockey in the 1930s and 1940s. It is clear that the pool of female athletes who were young and single, or married but childless, largely dried up during the Great Depression because of social pressure for women to embrace their domestic and maternal roles rather than to participate in sporting activities. By the time of the Second World War, arenas and gymnasiums were unavailable because of the military demands for space. It was too difficult for women’s sports to flourish. 

Because it is a popular history, it is perhaps unfair to criticize the book for not referring to the body of scholarly literature on women’s sports in general and on hockey in particular. Nancy Theberge’s Higher Goals: Women’s Ice Hockey and the Politics of Gender or Laura Robinson’s She Shoots, She Scores: Canadian Perspectives on Women in Sport might have been consulted in order to develop the importance of gender attitudes in the early twentieth century. 

The author’s approach is similar to that of male spectators at a women’s hockey game around 1900. At that time a reporter wrote: “Both teams played grandly and surprised hundreds of the sterner sex who went to the match expecting to see many ludicrous scenes and have many good laughs. Indeed before they were there very long, the men’s sympathies and admiration went out to the players and they became wildly enthusiastic.” The issue was not whether women could play – they could. In fact, as Norton points out, the sport was popular enough that the Edmonton Ladies Hockey Club was chosen to advertise Starr “Acme Club” skates in 1899. While the image associates the glamour of the players with the product, there is also some recognition that, given that women players were used to sell hockey skates, the women’s game had been accepted. 

It appears that the women who played hockey also challenged traditional notions of femininity and the myth of female frailty. Sports have traditionally been seen as a means of turning boys into men. Sports are not meant to turn girls into women. Moreover, many Canadians in this period were alarmed by the idea of women’s going to university, entering the workforce, or playing sports. Doctors argued that such activities would jeopardize the female reproductive system. It was a scandal for women to ride bicycles, for example, because it was simply too strenuous for the female body. Then what to make of women who wanted to play hockey, which was clearly a “man’s sport”? Especially when women played with an intensity similar to that displayed by men? One early game saw a disputed goal that led to an altercation on the ice involving players, the referee, and spectators. Body-checking was also discouraged in the women’s game. It was reported that a player “was ruled off for one minute for being a bad girl. She checked one of the other girls real hard.” However, at the 1920 Banff tournament, it was reported that the female hockey player, “not to be outdone by her big brother, has donned the knickers and the hockey sweater and is fast becoming a most proficient exponent of the very fascinating and contagious sport of hockey.” 

Yet female hockey players were admonished: “Remember, young ladies, participation in sports may foster manlike qualities, like boldness, initiative, pride and a spirit of independence.” And, as late as the 1960s, Clarence Campbell, former University of Alberta grad and, later, president of the nhl, said that “hockey was too rough for gals.” Hockey was a gendered arena that defined male and female roles. But it is also clear that, if playing hockey was perceived to be a threat to femininity, then the young women of the Amazons, Kewpies, and Swastikas did not believe it. They could play the game skilfully and maintain their femininity. 

Women on Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada provides an interesting, well-written, and detailed description of women’s hockey in British Columbia and Alberta before 1940. While it doesn’t answer all the questions an academic historian might ask, it is a highly readable and entertaining popular history. It identifies some of the pioneering women hockey players and acquaints us with many teams. Since the 1990s, the numbers of girls and women playing hockey have increased significantly. Women’s hockey has come a long way: there are local leagues in communities across the country and there is hockey in schools and universities. The Canadian women’s hockey team has won gold medals at the last three Olympics, although the celebration in Vancouver was marred because, after their victory, some players were seen smoking cigars and drinking champagne on the ice. The International Olympic Committee was appalled: “I don’t think it’s a good promotion of sport values,” according to the executive director. “If they celebrate in the changing room, that’s one thing, but not in public. We will investigate what happened.” Maybe attitudes towards women’s hockey haven’t come that far after all. 

 

Women on Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada. 
By Wayne Norton
Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2010.  163 pp. $21.95 paper