By Dan Plouffe
Not long after her first steps came Hillary Sterling’s first strides on skates, on her family’s backyard rink in Richmond, and not much later, her goal became to play hockey in the Olympics for Team Canada.
“It’s been a dream of mine ever since I was young,” underlines the 18-year-old daughter of a hockey-playing dad and figure-skating mom. “I’ve been working so hard for it.”
Last spring, the Nepean Wildcats Provincial Women’s Hockey League forward took a big first step in her quest when she was invited to a national team camp in preparation for the 2021 under-18 women’s world championship.
“I was so thankful, and proud of myself as well,” recalls Sterling, a future St. Lawrence University NCAA player.
The planned two-week summer camp in Calgary eventually got cancelled due to COVID, though the replacement virtual meetings on mental performance, strength and conditioning, strategy and nutrition “was still an overall great experience, and I’m honoured to have had that opportunity,” Stirling indicates.
The worlds planned for January in Sweden were ultimately scrapped as well. The tournament cancellation was announced alongside the news that the men’s U20 worlds would go forward in a bubble environment, prompting fellow Team Canada U18 women’s hopeful Jade Maisonneuve of Ottawa to call out hockey’s “institutional sexism.” Sterling was crushed too.
“Obviously, I knew COVID was a thing, but it’s a pretty big deal representing your country, so I was thinking they would find a way to make it happen,” recounts the Sacred Heart Catholic High School senior.
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She questions why the event couldn’t have been postponed instead of cancelled, noting that the men’s U18 worlds are set to take place April 26-May 6 in Texas.
“It is hard to understand how one can happen and not the other,” says Sterling, who’d never previously thought much about sexism in hockey, or felt discriminated against.
“You don’t realize it until you’re in the situation where your chance to represent your country and put on the jersey is taken from you, and then seeing other boys my age will be getting that opportunity,”
she adds. “It’s just devastating.”
Sport ‘built historically, for boys and men, by men’
The official name of the U18 male tournament is the 2021 IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship. Adding the word “men” was perhaps unnecessary since there was no women’s event, though the senior-level men’s and women’s tournaments are similarly respectively called the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship and the IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship.
The senior men’s tournament generally features a few of the players who have been knocked out of the NHL playoffs and still care enough to attend, while the women’s tournament is the sport’s pinnacle each season featuring the world’s best female players.
“That male bias, that gender bias, is so alive in sport,” notes Allison Sandmeyer-Graves, the CEO of Canadian Women & Sport. “Sport has been built, historically, for boys and men, by men.”
One of the main tasks for Sandmeyer-Graves’ organization is pointing out instances of inequality. CWS did that recently when the Ontario government announced a $15.3 million COVID relief sport funding package that included a $2.35 million contribution to the Ontario Hockey League’s post-secondary education scholarship fund.
CWS issued a statement that said in part: “Financial support for sport to recover from COVID-19 is needed and welcomed; however, the allocation of funds to men’s sport without offering the same to women’s sport is unfair.”
The funding provided to the OHL was roughly two-thirds of the amount provided to a combined 63 provincial sport organizations to help with their administration costs and to support their member clubs ($3.6 million).
“Is there significant power and influence that resides in the men’s game, and then the leadership of the men’s game, particularly relative to the women’s side? For sure. Leagues like the OHL are long-established leagues with histories of receiving funding from different entities. They have a lot of relationships, and, frankly, expectations associated with that,” Sandmeyer-Graves highlights, noting that CWS’ statement “really has nothing to do with support for the OHL and the OHL deserving support, but there’s a long tradition of men benefiting disproportionately from funding through sports.
“And I think in this day and age, we really need to be challenging that, particularly, given what we see in the broader context of how significantly women have been impacted by COVID, and how at-risk the gains towards equity are as a result of the pandemic.”
Sandmeyer-Graves adds that inequitable actions are often the product of unconscious bias.
“We have so many biases baked into our institutions, and the way we look at the world,” she explains. “We need to level up as a sport system, within governments, within the sport partners, in terms of taking those unconscious biases and making them very, very conscious, so that we can make decisions that account for all genders and treat them fairly.”
Ontario sport relief funding criticized for gender inequities
While announcing the support for sport funding on March 17, Ontario Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Lisa MacLeod noted she was proudly wearing a Nepean Wildcats jacket (her daughter plays with the association).
Given that the scholarship funds would only go to male hockey players, Nepean PWHL general manager Bruce MacDonald feels that wearing Wildcats swag “sent a bit of a mixed message.”
“It’s nice, but, you know, what about the girls? Why shouldn’t they have the opportunity for that money?” he says. “It’s frightening, actually.”
MacDonald applauds the OHL for helping its players with scholarships and encouraging them to pursue their educations, but notes that some of the Wildcats’ university-bound players will wind up paying for 75% of their post-secondary costs since scholarships often only cover a portion.
“I don’t understand it, but it’s what they do, and it’s totally unfair,” adds MacDonald, who’s been involved in women’s hockey for most of two decades. “Why one gender over another? I don’t understand that. It’s taxpayer money going to one sector of the population. It’s not right.”
OHL priority entrenched
MacDonald wonders how much impact the “squeaky wheel” had on the OHL receiving support.
Illustrating the foothold the OHL owns within the sports landscape, the vast majority of media questions following MacLeod’s wide-ranging announcement were related to the OHL, and when the government would approve/help fund a restart (the season was ultimately called off on April 20 with the province under a stay-at-home order).
The Ottawa Sports Pages exchanged emails over 3 weeks with MacLeod’s office to coordinate an interview, however did not receive replies to emails or voicemails in the 5 days prior to this story’s publication.
Also included in Ontario’s sport relief funding package was an increase in Quest For Gold provincial carding for Ontario athletes competing at the national level, as well as $3 million for SPORT4ONTARIO to ensure families can return to safe sports programming.
“From the very organic level, the grassroots level, like at a Nepean Wildcats level, the work that they’re going to be doing will help regain and restore trust and confidence in sport post-COVID,” MacLeod said during the announcement, while the funding to provincial sport bodies “allows us to retain the structure and the bones of all those different organizations.”
#ChooseToChallenge the theme for International Women’s Day
In response to the announced funding, the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association tweeted: “Thanks for your support of sports and women’s hockey. We are working hard to support participation and programs that enhance mental and physical health.”
Two days later, the OWHA shared Oregon Ducks NCAA women’s basketball player Sedona Prince’s viral video that showcased the differences between the men’s and women’s weightrooms, stating: “Let’s all keep pushing for change sooner than later.”
The hashtag for International Women’s Day this year was #ChooseToChallenge – had the OWHA missed an opportunity to speak out?
“There’s always a bit of a balancing act between working within the system while also acknowledging the system,” notes Sandmeyer-Graves, adding that for CWS, “we really strive to do that in the spirit of supporting everybody to grow and to move forward.
“It’s not about calling out to tear down, it’s about calling people forward, so that we can build better together.
“Sometimes there’s a need to point out inequity so that people can better understand what it looks like, and how it shows up, and to challenge it, so that we can either rethink those decisions, or make a better decision next time.”
Women’s sport needs extra funding to address historical inequities
There have been encouraging pledges made by governments and sporting bodies across Canada to support the advancement of women’s sport, Sandmeyer-Graves notes, but it can be emotionally draining for CWS to see inequitable actions persist.
“It is frustrating as a woman to have to constantly fight for the things that male counterparts get kind of automatically,” she signals. “It is an exhausting exercise to be constantly engaging in that.”
But Sandmeyer-Graves also feels compassion and empathy for sport leaders because efforts are being made, and there is “so much to undo, and remake, in order to get us to a more equitable place.”
A promising sign for the future of women’s sport came in 2019 when provincial ministers endorsed a vision “for all women and girls to be equitably represented, recognized, and served across all aspects of Canadian sport.” The federal government’s target to achieve gender equity in sport at every level is 2035.
“What we’ve been advocating for, for a long time, but certainly within COVID, is: bring a gender lens to your decisions, because if you don’t, there’s a very strong likelihood that women and girls are going to be left on the sidelines with the recovery,” she explains.
“Particularly within governments – and I would love to see this extend to corporate as well – we have to bring that equity lens. We have to look at it and say: yes, the men’s game deserves support, but the women’s game has been historically disadvantaged for years, due to the biases that we have within the sports system, and within our society more broadly.
“Equity requires us to start to address that historical gap or those historical disadvantages, which means that the women’s side possibly needs even more than the men’s side, to ensure that women and girls benefit equitably from sport, and from government investment in sport.”
Peek into PWHL business
The Ontario government provided approximately $138,000 to help each of the 17 Ontario-based OHL junior men’s hockey clubs meet their scholarship commitments to players.
The Nepean Wildcats – one of 20 PWHL junior women’s clubs that did not receive similar funding – have a total annual budget of roughly $110,000 across its three Program of Excellence teams (U15, U18 and PWHL). Some pay is provided to non-parent coaches, staff, physical conditioning trainers, and goalie or skating specialists.
“The Provincial Women’s Hockey League is kind of this well-kept secret,” signals Wildcats general manager Bruce MacDonald, “but we produce some of the best players in the world.”
MacDonald says the PWHL is somewhat comparable to the OHL on the girls’ side.
“Yeah, we are a junior league, but we don’t have owners – we are funded by the parents,” he counters, noting the family of a PWHL player would pay about $5,000/year in registration fees, plus more for travel, hotels, meals and tournaments during a nearly 80-game season. “We don’t have the money behind us to grow as much as we want to grow, but in terms of the quality and the dedication, these girls train as hard as anybody.”
Players who make a provincial or national team could access Quest For Gold athlete funding, while post-secondary education scholarships are the big carrot dangling for many PWHL players, MacDonald notes.
Most who go to play NCAA hockey have all of their costs covered. Support from Canadian university programs can vary. Many receive athletic and academic scholarships worth 25-50% of their costs, while a top player going to a top Canadian program could get 100%.
“Really, they play for the love of the game, and that’s strictly what they’re playing for in a lot of cases – they know there’s not a lot of money at the end of this,” details MacDonald, underlining what an enormous help investments from men’s leagues or government could provide to kickstart professional women’s hockey.
“I hope in the next 5-10 years that something happens,” he adds. “I think if there was something for them to strive for, you’d get even more people involved.”
Emerging women’s hockey pro’s view
Ottawa’s Lindsay Eastwood became a pro hockey player (sort of) this season in the National Women’s Hockey League.
The former Wildcats and Syracuse Orange captain worked a “day job” in digital marketing while earning “not enough to live off of” but still “a nice bonus” with the Toronto Six.
A male player equivalent to Eastwood’s place in the women’s hockey world would perhaps draw a salary in the range of $4 million per year.
Men’s world championships proceeding while women’s events get cancelled is another example of a money-driven double standard, signals Eastwood, while the OHL scholarship funding showcases inequality again.
“Especially when it’s coming from the government, I mean, you’ve got to give it 50-50 here,” says the 24-year-old. “That’s not fair and that’s not right.”
Eastwood also notes that playing NCAA hockey “is so nice because you get treated, like, almost more professional than you do in professional, just because everything is 50-50 for men’s and women’s sports because of Title IX” legislation in the U.S. that guarantees equal funding for women’s collegiate sports.
But the example of the vastly different weightrooms available to men’s and women’s basketball teams in the NCAA March Madness bubble is an example of attitudes that still persist.
“You know, 2021 – we gotta start recognizing that stuff and being better about it,” Eastwood underlines.