By Colin Orsak
It was a big step up from getting changed in the broom closet, but the battle for equity in hockey continued for Orleans’ Erica Howe as she returned home for the Canadian Tire PWHPA All-Star Weekend from Dec. 9-11.
A couple decades ago, Howe would squeeze into her goalie equipment in a makeshift lockerroom as the only female member of her Cumberland Barons team (and sometimes she’d have company in there with future best friend and Olympic champion Jamie Lee Rattray when the Kanata Blazers were her opponent).
The Canadian Tire Centre provided significantly superior accommodations as the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association took over the Ottawa Senators’ home rink for its first-ever all-star showcase last weekend – another step in its quest to create a top-tier pro league for women.
“You see the young girls passing through – the Nepean Wildcats and Kanata Rangers – and it’s just really cool to see that they’re coming out to watch women play,” highlighted Howe, “because growing up, I only had the NHL team to watch.”
Howe was one of four local players selected as all-stars for the PWHPA’s four-team 3-on-3 tournament. Her squad (captained by Sarah Nurse) recorded back-to-back shutouts in a 0-0 tie and 1-0 win against Team (Hilary) Knight and Team (Marie-Philip) Poulin before a 2-1 loss to eventual champion Team (Megan) Keller, which featured Ottawa’s Rebecca Leslie.
Playing for Team Knight along with Limoges goalie Geneviève Lacasse, Rattray assisted on the tying goal in the final minute of the championship game, but Team Keller got the lone goal of the shootout.
It was also a homecoming weekend for defender Megan Eady of Renfrew and forwards Samantha Cogan of Ottawa and Natasza Tarnowski of Embrun, who played in PWHPA Dream Gap Tour games Friday evening in Kemptville and Gatineau, and Saturday at the CTC.
The PWHPA is making stops across North America, with an eye on creating a pro league with liveable wages and proper structure. The all-star games and skills competition were broadcast on TSN, while the support of the Ottawa Senators – one of the PWHPA’s 10 NHL club partners – was another encouraging sign for the PWHPA’s mission.
“I’m glad we have great leaders like Jayna [Hefford] and Kendall Coyne pushing it forward, as well as Billie Jean King,” noted Howe. “Those people are putting in a lot of work.”
Howe has enjoyed an exceptional hockey career by all benchmarks. Alongside Rattray every step of the way, Howe won championships at all levels – junior with the Ottawa Lady Sens, college with Clarkson University, U18 World Championships and senior Four Nations Cup with Team Canada, and she was the 2018 Clarkson Cup MVP when their Markham Thunder won the Canadian Women’s Hockey League title a year before the semi-pro league folded.
Howe has been among the top goaltenders in Canada for many years now, and while male players of similar stature make millions, the 30-year-old now balances her athletic pursuits with full-time work as a firefighter in Mississauga to make a living.
“If we get a tough night at work and we have to go in – that happened to me this week. I worked on the weekend and had to go to practice on Monday morning. I was tired and a little bit grumpy,” Howe recounted.
“I’m fortunate that the PW[HPA] works with my schedule to kind of allow me to miss a practice here and there because it’s just impossible to get to them all.”
When women’s hockey eventually gets adequate funding and players can afford to go to every practice, Howe believes the quality of play will increase.
“I know girls who work the regular 9-to-5 jobs. They’re on the go all day, they don’t have time to look after themselves. By the time they get to the rink, they are drained. They’re giving everything they have and they barely have time to go grocery shopping,” outlined the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Secondary School grad.
“I think if you’re paid full-time and that’s all you focus on, it would make a huge difference in the level of play.”
Despite promising developments towards the establishment of a pro league, Howe is unsure if she’d be able to join in if it comes to fruition.
“I don’t know. I have my full-time job so it’s tough,” she indicated. “[Maybe] if I was able to still work and play – because my career is kind of set and I can’t take a bunch of time off – but I don’t know. If I could do both, I would still do it for sure.”
The window for Howe to make her living as a hockey player has perhaps already closed, but she’s still keen to fight for the next generation of young girls and provide some inspiration while on tour.
“Them being able to come out and see us and understand that there is an association pushing forward and trying to get a league going for them in the future, I think it will have a big impact on them to see the women who are doing it,” Howe underlined.
“If you can see it, you can be it, right?”
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