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Women’s hockey stars skate a fine line between Team Canada and the beer leagues

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By Dan Plouffe

It’s expected to have a bigger economic impact on the national capital region than the NHL All-Star Game.

The Ottawa Senators, organizing partners along with the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association, have booked up every suitable hotel room in the city, and are still 1,000 short.

“This will end up being the biggest celebration of women’s and girls’ hockey ever staged – here in Ottawa, in April,” Senators president Cyril Leeder says of the 2013 IIHF women’s hockey world championship and the OWHA provincials.

It’s the second time Ottawa will host the women’s worlds; the first was the inaugural event in 1990. Shelley Coolidge tried out for the Canadian squad back then, and smiles as she recalls the pink jerseys the team wore as a publicity tool for the event.

“Take a look now at how far the game’s come,” offers Coolidge, now the women’s hockey head coach for the Carleton University Ravens. “There’s going to be more girls playing in the provincial championships than were playing in the whole country in 1990.”

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The Saskatchewan native recalls playing on boys’ teams when she was growing up and being barred from playing in her provincial championships “because girls don’t play hockey,” as she puts it.

“When I got my first paid job with Hockey Canada, my dad came to me and said, ‘You know Shelley, I don’t know how many times I said to you that girls can’t get paid to be in this sport, and you’ve got a full-time job out of it. It’s the new wave,’” Coolidge recounts.

Now she leads a university program where athletes train just about every day of the week, have the aid of athletic therapists, fitness and mental skills coaches, and are part of a sport where their education can be covered with scholarships. Each game, they welcome young players from many local girls’ hockey organizations with their own dreams of becoming the next Hayley Wickenheiser or Marie-Philip Poulin.

But despite the game’s growth, there’s still a long way to go, Coolidge counters, estimating that there are only 10 Canadian females making a comfortable living playing hockey.

The rest of the national team athletes make enough to get by, but those outside the elite two dozen in Canada aren’t as lucky. That means the female equivalent of a Jason Spezza – a superstar for his club team, but just below the cut for the Canadian Olympic team – wouldn’t be able to get paid to be a hockey player.

The five-team Canadian Women’s Hockey League offers an outlet for a greater number of athletes to compete at a world-class level, but does not pay its players. And if a top hockey player lives and works in a city outside of Montreal, Toronto, Brampton, Boston or Calgary – such as Ottawa – the options for elite play are virtually non-existent.

Nowhere for grads to go

That’s the scenario Elysia Desmier is facing at the moment.

The 26-year-old grew up playing with the former National Capitals program. In Desmier’s final season of Midget hockey, she won the first provincial title of her career, scoring the championship-winning goal in double-overtime.

The forward moved on to play at the University of Guelph for four years, studying zoology. She caught the eye of the Brampton CWHL club and wound up playing for them for three full seasons.

“I loved it,” Desmier says. “It was  a huge thrill to me getting to play with players like Vicki Sunohara, Jayna Hefford, Lori Dupuis – basically my childhood idols.”

But she didn’t enjoy living in Toronto as much, so when a job opportunity came up at the world-class Alta Vista Animal Hospital, she chose to return home, close to family.

“It sounded like an easy decision for me back then, but I miss playing in the CWHL so much,” reflects Desmier, who now skates in a Sunday night league created by ex-university players. “University was every day, and CWHL was about four times a week, so going down to one time a week is kind of depressing.”

CWHL on the rise

Ottawa did have a CWHL team in the past, but the league elected to fold the franchise in 2010 following back-to-back seasons where the Senators finished in last place with records of 5-23-2 and 4-20. The reasoning was that the CWHL wanted to project itself as the most elite product possible to try to attract sponsors and eventually make it a professional league, and Ottawa wasn’t up to par. Although they were disappointed, former players and managers were generally understanding and supportive of the league’s decision.

Since then, the CWHL has progressed steadily as a whole. Recently, the league announced that the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and Calgary Flames would form alliances with the Toronto Furies and Alberta’s CWHL club, providing $30,000 and $20,000 cash each season, plus support for marketing and promotions.

“That’s awesome. It’s really great,” says University of Ottawa Gee-Gees grad Danika Smith, who also previously dressed for Ottawa in the CWHL. “But right away when I read that, I was thinking, ‘well, there’s a big hole. There’s another NHL team that could also potentially sponsor a team.”

Coolidge believes “there’s a whole lot more our NHL franchise could have done to support the (CWHL) team,” but credits the Senators for the leading role they’ve taken as the first NHL club to help organize the women’s worlds. And by providing jerseys, their name and some cash to the defunct CWHL club, it was at least a start, she adds.

Before the recent initiative with NHL teams, the Senators’ support was unique in the league, highlights CWHL commissioner Brenda Andress.

“The CW would not have been able to put a team in Ottawa at the time without the support of the Ottawa Senators,” says Andress, noting the Sens also provided some money for the Clarkson Cup championship. “They were phenomenal supporting the entire league at that point.”

Sponsorship and money is a key requirement for any club to operate, Andress notes, but the major problem with Ottawa was simply not having enough top-end talent, and since players aren’t paid, the league couldn’t tell an Olympian or two to move to the capital.

“I can’t impress this more – the volunteers and women that put that team together were so passionate about the game,” Andress underlines. “Ottawa, and other areas, are on our radar because there’s such a strong youth organization, there’s a strong girls’ grassroots program and strong businesspeople. And those dedicated women are still there.”

Opportunity knocks

A CWHL return to Ottawa could certainly happen, she adds, but the local funding would need to be in place and the league would need to continue to grow to manage additional travel costs. And the biggest key would be making sure Ottawa can offer a good on-ice product.

“We take a look at the current players coming out of NCAA programs and coming back to the Ottawa area – very shortly, it’s going to be tremendous,” Andress describes. “We’re watching that growth, and as that growth increases, it becomes more logical that a team can be placed there. (…) Is Ottawa a prime place to put it? Absolutely. But you have to put all the pieces together so that when we go back – and we will one day, I’m sure of it – but we want to make sure it’s successful.”

Those who would like to see the CWHL return to Ottawa can’t help but think of the potential momentum the women’s world championship coming to town could create for the cause. Local fans set an attendance world record for a women’s hockey match at a Canada vs USA exhibition at Scotiabank Place in the lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, and are poised to show their tremendous support for the game once again come April. There’s a championships organizing committee in place that is connecting women’s hockey leaders and volunteers at all levels. The pieces are all there, Coolidge notes.

“The business relationships that are made at the women’s world championship could be a natural fit,” she hints, encouraging the passionate people and players to “step up and take a leadership role and start knocking on some doors and getting some help to bring a team back.”

An elite local club is the missing step at the top of the pyramid for Ottawa players, adds Coolidge, who just missed the cut for Team Canada back in 1990.

“For me, the unfortunate part is that if I go back 25 or 30 years when I played, they’re in the exact same spot,” laments the Ravens coach. “I’d love to see that level of hockey played here so that when girls graduate from our programs and are getting into the prime of their athletic lives, they have a chance to continue and compete.”

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