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The Montreal Stars celebrate after winning the Clarkson Cup in the Canadian Women's Hockey Championship on March 21, 2009. (Ian MacAlpine/The Canadian Press)
The Montreal Stars celebrate after winning the Clarkson Cup in the Canadian Women's Hockey Championship on March 21, 2009. (Ian MacAlpine/The Canadian Press)

Women’s hockey has come so far, and has so much further to go Add to ...

Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson laughs to think that, 100 years from now, she may be best remembered for a small statue of an Inuit goddess whose chopped-off fingers turned into walruses.

That would be Sedna, goddess of the sea and marine animals, and the model for the Clarkson Cup that was commissioned, and paid for, by Ms. Clarkson 10 years ago and today stands for supremacy in Canadian women’s hockey.

That prize will be played for this Sunday afternoon in Ottawa at the Canadian Tire Centre, when Montreal’s Les Canadiennes – led by playoff hero and Olympic gold-medal captain Caroline Ouellette – will meet the Calgary Inferno, home team of one of the country’s most-revered hockey stars, Hayley Wickenheiser.

The Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) has a two-year agreement with the Ottawa Senators of the NHL in which the Clarkson Cup will be played here this year and again in 2017, during the country’s sesquicentennial celebrations.

It will highlight how far women’s hockey has come in the country that invented the game – and also show how far it has to go.

“I’m really pleased with what has become of the Cup,” says Clarkson, who is in France and regrets not being able to present her trophy to this year’s winning team.

“I gave that Cup 10 years ago because I believe in women’s hockey. In many ways, it’s been terrific.

“But still, the players don’t have the money they should have, they don’t get the push they deserve. Why, oh why, is there no money for women’s hockey? They are highly skilled, it’s fast and people obviously like it – just look at the Olympics. But you have to ask why these women can’t make a living playing hockey when men are being paid 10 times more to play.”

If Wickenheiser is the most recognizable face in Canadian women’s hockey, Sidney Crosby is obviously the same for men’s hockey. Crosby, 28, will make $16,049,400 (Canadian) this year playing for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Wickenheiser, 37, will make zero playing for the Inferno.

“We don’t get anything,” says the four-time Olympic gold-medal winner. “We get our flights and accommodation and meal per diem, but that’s it. It still costs me to play hockey.”

When Les Canadiennes defeated the Toronto Furies in a best-of-three series held in Brossard, Que., to decide which team would move on to the final, several of the Toronto players had to miss the first game, played on Friday, because they were unable to arrange time off from work.

The CWHL is a professionally run, not-for-profit organization that uses whatever money it can raise to increase the profile of the league and its players and, it is hoped, inspire the next generation of Hayley Wickenheisers and Marie-Philip Poulins.

Poulin, who scored the gold-medal-winning goals at both the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games, plays for Les Canadiennes and was the league’s top scorer this winter. Still only 24, she has many Olympics remaining.

Certainly, there is good news in women’s hockey. According to Paul Carson, vice-president of membership development at Hockey Canada, registration rose steadily following the addition of women’s hockey to the 1998 Nagano Games. Canada had 54,563 players registered in 2000-02 and, though it has levelled off somewhat in recent years, 87,494 registered in 2014-15.

Even more impressive has been the rise in on-ice officials, which more than doubled to 2,266 by 2015, and in female coaches, which rose from 803 to 7,067 over that 15-year span.

Carson credits such initiatives as Esso’s Fun Days, where children are allowed to try hockey and Bauer’s First Shift program, where they learn to play the game. Nothing inspires as much interest, however, as an Olympic match between Canada and arch-rival Team USA.

Wickenheiser, who says she is fully recovered from surgery on the broken foot that slowed her in Sochi, likes what she sees in the increased number of players. There is also an American women’s league with teams in Buffalo, Boston, New York and Connecticut.

“There’s more chatter about women’s hockey,” she says. “But it’s been a slow process so far as I’m concerned. I was saying 10 years ago that women’s hockey would form a paying, professional league.

“We’re at a pivotal point right now and we need to take that next step. We have the Olympics and the world championships, but we need something to sustain the game and build the following when those events aren’t on. You can’t just have it all occur every four years. That’s why a league is so important.”

If she had her druthers, they would play 60 games a season rather than 20, but she is acutely aware that league costs and players’ real-time jobs will not currently allow such an expansion.

Still, the numbers from the Olympics have been encouraging. Two years ago at the Sochi Winter Games, some 13 million Canadians tuned in to watch the women’s team defeat Team USA in overtime, when Poulin scored her dramatic winner on a power play courtesy of a penalty to the American side drawn when Wickenheiser was hauled down on a breakaway.

Wickenheiser can point to many successes – the new league, strong enrolment, new sponsors and increasing television coverage of important games such as this Sunday’s Clarkson Cup.

And she still believes a day will come when the professional league has professional players, elite athletes who are paid for what they do so well. Clarkson wants nothing less than the same.

“I want them one day to be able to be just hockey players,” says the former governor-general. “I want them to make a living. I want them to have their contracts dissected and analyzed just as the men do.”

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