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Women’s hockey struggling in Canada

TORONTO, CANADA (AFP) – In Canada, hockey is king but there are few queens. In many regions, women’s teams do not exist and there is no women’s professional league. But many are fighting to change that.

“The next five years will make up for the last 15. I think now is the time,” said former Canadian national team coach Daniele Sauvageau, who is now director of the high performance centre.

“We’re going to see changes and more visibility, probably more women’s sports on TV than we’ve seen,” she added.

It’s quite the paradox that despite another Olympic gold medal in Beijing, Canadian female hockey players are still not very visible in their country and hockey remains mainly a sport for men. Women still represent less than 20 per cent of players in Canada (less than 10 per cent in Quebec).

The introduction in 2017 of a form of salary in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) could have marked a turning point. But barely two years later, the announcement of its bankruptcy put an end to the professionalition movement that seemed to have begun.

Photos show young players train during their Toronto Leaside Girls Hockey Association’s youth house league skills practice in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. PHOTOS: AFP

“We come back to the forefront with the Olympic Games. But everything has to be redone every four years,” said captain of the Canadian team and three-time Olympic champion Marie-Philip Poulin.

Poulin founded, together with other Canadian and American players, the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA). Their goal: to create a cross-border league where female athletes can be paid as professionals without having to work on the side.

“We believe in it. We are fighting to create a league not only for ourselves, but for the next generations of players. It takes patience,” she added.

In the women’s clubs, the girls know little about these champions.

“There’s still the perception of only boys playing hockey, but I think it’s started to change now,” said head of a women’s hockey club in Toronto Kim McCullough.

According to a recent poll, more than 92 per cent of Canadians believe that girls should be encouraged to play sports as much as boys, but more than 33 per cent still consider that certain sports are not suitable for women.

In recent years, “we’ve seen growth at a lot of different levels, which I think is awesome. The more players we can get, the better it is for our sport”, added McCullough, wearing a red Team Canada cap.

On the ice, beginners aged seven to 14, green or pink jerseys on their backs, skated at full speed from one end of the rink to the other, forwards and backwards, sometimes falling, under the watchful eyes of their parents, who capture the moment in images on their smartphones from behind the safety glass that surrounds the rink.

Jamie Bliss, 43, accompanied his daughter Kira, 12, to training: “It’s great having all the girls on ice but also having the coaches being women. I think it’s great for them to see others girls and women coaching them, encouraging them, that really helps to build their confidence.”

Having a role model is what motivated 10-year-old Hallae. “I was inspired by my dad’s girlfriend, she did a lot of hockey,” she said, adding that she loves the sport.

At this all-girls club in Toronto, many say it makes them feel more comfortable.
“It’s easier because some boys can sometimes be mean when you mess up,” said eight-year-old Riley.

But not all provinces offer the opportunity for girls to play on women’s teams to discover hockey. In Quebec, most of the time the girls are integrated into the boys’ teams.

A recent report, commissioned by the Quebec government on the hockey system of the French-speaking province, focussed in particular on the promotion of women’s hockey and recommended better supervision of the development and career of players. And for more women in key positions within Hockey Quebec.