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Until recently, many Canadians were not aware of Canada's proud tradition in women's hockey -- a tradition that stretches back over 100 years. Many Canadians are surprised to learn that Lord Stanley's daughter, Lady Isobel Stanley, was a pioneer in the women's game. One of the first females to be photographed using puck and stick (around 1890) Lady Isobel wore a long white dress when she played "shinny" with other ladies on the natural ice rink beside Government House in Ottawa.
In 1888, soon after he had arrived from England to serve as Canada's Governor General, Lord Stanley and his large family (eight sons and two daughters) attended the Montreal Winter Carnival. It was here that they witnessed a game of (men's) hockey and promptly developed a passion for the game. Lady Isobel and at least two of her brothers were particularly enthused and before Lord Stanley's term expired, they and others urged him to donate a trophy to hockey. Lord Stanley donated a cup to men's hockey, but had he been able to foresee the future for women's hockey, surely he would have donated a second trophy to the game -- one he might have called Lady Stanley's Cup. But no one at the time could have predicted such a bright future for women in the game; a future that would include world and Olympic championships and one that would see young women in many countries performing with great skill and in astonishing numbers.
By the early 1900s, women's teams were common throughout most of the Canadian provinces. On Feb. 11, 1891, one of the earliest newspaper accounts of a game between women appeared in the Ottawa Citizen. During those early days, many of the ladies preferred to play behind closed doors, with no men allowed. One privileged reporter who witnessed women competing in Saint John, New Brunswick, during those formative years wrote: "some of them are very swift skaters and they can dodge with the puck to equal some of the best men players."
The long skirts worn by the women led to a clever defensive strategy. The ladies crouched in front of their goaltender, allowing the hem of their long skirts to spread out and thus foil any attempt by an opposing player to shoot the puck beyond them and into the net.
College girls were quick to play the game. Women "hockeyists" at McGill University in Montréal began playing hockey in 1894. The referee was the only man allowed to watch the women perform and he blew his whistle three times: to start the game, at the half, and at the end of the match.
In 1900, the first known league for women was organized in Quebec with three teams competing and spectators, at long last, allowed to attend. Western Canadian women were also keeping pace with their eastern counterparts. Teams with colourful names sprang up: the Biggar Floradoras, the Saskatchewan Prairie Lilies, the Snowflakes, the Golden Girls and even a team called the Old Hens.
In 1916, Cornwall, Ontario, introduced local sensation Albertine Lapensee, who was billed as "the premier female player in the world." Thousands of fans turned out to see Lapensee play. But not for long; Lapensee went to New York for a visit and returned several weeks later -- as a man. Her new name was Albert Smith.
In 1927, Elizabeth Graham, a young woman from Queen's University, contributed to hockey history by wearing the first goal mask in the game. Miss Graham wore a fencing mask during collegiate games.
In the 1930's, a team from the small town of Preston, Ontario dominated women's hockey. The Preston Rivulettes reigned as Canadian champions for a decade, from 1930 to 1940, winning 348 games and losing only two. Their record was, and remains, phenomenal.
During World War II, women shifted their priorities. They focused on family matters and the work force, while their men served in the armed forces. Women's hockey declined and did not make a comeback until the 1960s.
Perhaps a young girl named Abby Hoffman was a catalyst for the revival of interest. Playing as "Ab" Hoffman in an all-boys league, she excelled in the sport and her gender was not discovered until she was forced to hand in a birth certificate. Soon, other young women began trying out for boy's teams, only to be rebuffed.
By 1982, a national championship for women was re-introduced and a female hockey council was established. In 1987, the first Women's World Hockey Tournament was held in North York, Ontario, a tournament that spawned other major championships in Europe and Asia.
The 1990s brought even more delightful surprises, including record registration of female players and women invading men's professional ranks. Three women goalies won games while performing on men's professional teams in the minor leagues. One of them, Manon Rheaume, was given a tryout by the Tampa Bay Lightening and played in a National Hockey League pre-season game. Bona fide World Championships for women were held in Ottawa in 1990, in Finland in 1992, at Lake Placid in 1994 and in Kitchener, Ontario in 1997. Canadian teams went undefeated, compiling a 20-0 record in international play.
Then came a major breakthrough -- the Winter Olympics and a global stage for women's players. At Nagano, Japan in 1998, Team USA upset Canada to win the first Olympic gold medal. Four years later at Salt Lake City, after compiling an impressive 31-0-0 record in pre-Olympic play, the defending champions were upset by Canada by a 3-2 score. Team Canada had overcome eleven U.S. power play opportunities, including eight in a row, en route to their most memorable triumph ever.
A proud past, indeed, and an even brighter future assured.
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