By Charlie Pinkerton
As the year in which the curtains unexpectedly closed on North America’s top women’s hockey league comes to an end, two of Ottawa’s top female players are trying to remain optimistic for the future of their sport.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) announced on March 31 that due to financial unviability the league would cease operations. Around 150 players, including some of the world’s best, were left without teams to play for this season.
Ottawa’s Jamie Lee Rattray and Rebecca Leslie were both suddenly without a team and a league.
Both are now part of the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) that was created out of the ashes of the CWHL by players hoping to advocate for the formation of a single, viable professional women’s ice hockey league in North America.
Rattray and Leslie shared with the Sportspage what their experiences have been like since the folding of the CWHL and what their thoughts are on the outlook for the future of the sport.
Leslie, 23, joined the CWHL last season after graduating from Boston University, where she played hockey for four years.
Leslie entered the CWHL knowing little of what to expect, which was similar to the mindset that Rattray, 27, had four years before her, when she entered the league.
Rattray said last season, the CWHL’s 12th in operation, was “one of the biggest, most productive years” in its history.
While Leslie says that during her only season in the CWHL she got the impression it wouldn’t be feasible for the long-term, she still felt blindsided by its closure.
Her Calgary Inferno team had won the Clarkson Cup (the CWHL championship) just a week before news that the league would be folding broke.
Leslie said the Inferno had been “parading around the city” as champions in the week between. They attended a Calgary Flames game with the cup, visited restaurants and received invites to meet with various girls’ hockey teams.
“The next week (the CWHL) folded and it was like what’s this trophy? It’s worthless now,” Leslie recalled.
Rattray was in Finland preparing for the IIHF Women’s World Championship when she heard the league was shutting down.
When news of the CWHL coming to an end reached Canada’s national team – of whom around two-thirds played in the league – Rattray said they were “shocked.”
“I remember sitting in that room and you could hear a pin drop,” Rattray said.
By the time of what would have been the start of this CWHL season rolled around, Rattray and Leslie had decided to stay put (Rattray in the GTA and Leslie in Calgary) where they previously played.
Both have spent parts of the fall and early winter attending Hockey Canada training camps.
Canada’s women’s team missed out on one of the international competitions it usually competes in each year after the Four Nations Cup was cancelled in the fall. The event was canned after the Swedish Ice Hockey Federation couldn’t come to an agreement with it’s women’s players’ over standards of pay in time.
Both Rattray and Leslie hope to land a spot on the national team that will compete at the 2020 World Championship in Halifax in April.
Neither Rattray or Leslie were part of a Team Canada roster that lost the opening two games of its “Rivalry Series” against the United States in December. Local netminder Genevieve Lacasse was the lone Ottawa player on Canada’s team in the first of at least five series games.
Canada’s roster for Rivalry Series games scheduled for Vancouver and Anaheim in February haven’t yet been announced. It’s assumed that players’ performances in the Rivalry Series will be factored into who makes the team that will play at the world championship in the spring.
Outside of Hockey Canada training camps and exhibition events arranged by the PWHPA, Rattray and Leslie have both kept up with near-daily skates this year.
Rattray runs her own instructional hockey school that works with teams that are mostly in Mississauga.
“I love it. It’s one of my favourite hobbies to go to the rink and help the girls out and be a part of a mentorship role for the young players,” Rattray said.
Leslie’s decision to remain in Calgary was partly so she could train with a collection of national team players who live in the city. She said they train five-to-six days a week and have been playing games against high-level midget and junior boys teams.
While players like her have been able to make the league-less season work, Leslie said she’s worried about the opportunities available for high-level women’s players who aren’t part of Hockey Canada’s national program.
“I don’t think that the women’s game is anything without that type of player. We can’t only have national team players in order for it to be successful. We need all types of players,” Leslie said.
Despite the challenging year for their sport, Rattray and Leslie spoke in unison in expressing optimism for the future of women’s hockey.
“There’s too many great people in this sport for this not to work,” Rattray said.