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Emily Bakker of The Cambridge Turbos battles the Richmond Hill Lightning for the ring during their National Ringette League game in Cambridge on October 27, 2012. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)
Emily Bakker of The Cambridge Turbos battles the Richmond Hill Lightning for the ring during their National Ringette League game in Cambridge on October 27, 2012. (Glenn Lowson For The Globe and Mail)

world under-19 championship

Not your granny’s ringette any more Add to ...

In case you don’t know (and let’s face it, you probably don’t), 2013 is set to be a huge year for ringette.

The sport is turning 50, and two events will define the occasion. First, the world under-19 championship takes place in London, Ont., starting this week and concluding Jan. 3. In December of 2013, the world ringette championships will happen in North Bay, the northern Ontario city where the sport was invented a half-century ago.

If you’re envisioning some girly-girl exhibition of giggles and funny little sticks, you’re living in the past. Today’s ringette is not your grandmother’s ringette. Modern ringette is stocked with good Canadian stuff like the occasional busted rib.

“It’s every bit as physical as a women’s hockey game, if not more,” said Glen Gaudet, coach of the senior women’s national team.

Finland, Russia, France and the United States are sending teams to London, though reportedly only Finland didn’t need help from Canada to fill out its roster. Canada has two teams in the tournament. The sport is most popular in Canada, with approximately 30,000 registered players, the highest number in 50 years. That’s about one-third the number of players in women’s hockey.

Enrolment has remained steady during the sport’s history, dipping only in 1998, the year women’s hockey became an Olympic sport. Since then, total registrations have grown by some 5,000.

Outreach campaigns geared at getting young girls to try the sport partly explain the expansion, and many say players have been drawn by the game itself. A lot has changed since the game was invented, and those changes – including a shot clock – have made the game faster, more exciting to watch, and more competitive.

As a result, more athletes have been drawn in, some even turning down the chance at athletic scholarships and a shot at Olympic glory to stick with the obscure game they love.

In a week night at a sports complex north of Toronto, the Richmond Hill Lightning are dressed in spandex shorts and sweaty T-shirts as they grind through a series of squats and planks. The Lightning are one of the better teams in the National Ringette League, which started play in October. Players are drafted to 16 squads across the country to make up the league.

The players, ages 19 to 32, have arrived at practice from their jobs or universities, some located more than an hour away. Their weekends are consumed by road trips to Southern Ontario cities, where they play up to four two-hour games over a two-day period.

A few have weathered concussions, broken collar bones, broken ribs; they are all routinely sore.

They include Beth Hurren, the team’s veteran captain. At 32, she is one of the top ringette players Canada has produced, representing Canada three times at world championships, which are held every three years. In 2010, she was selected to the world all-star team.

Hurren, a massage therapist, laughs wryly when she’s asked to estimate how much it has cost her to play her sport over her career. She’s lucky because the Lightning, unlike some other NRL teams, offset ice time and travel costs by fundraising. But that doesn’t include equipment costs. And she estimates it costs about $5,000 annually to play on Canada’s national team.

It’s an interesting sacrifice considering she could have chosen hockey, where university scholarships and are more plentiful and the Olympic games are a possibility.

Hurren did play two years of Canadian Interuniversity Sport hockey and spent one year in the National Women’s Hockey League. But that same season she played in the NWHL, she made the national ringette team for the first time. Ringette became her focus, effectively making her one of Canada’s best athletes few people outside the ringette world have ever heard of.

“At some point, you have to remember it’s about the passion,” Hurren said.

Her teammates on the Lightning feel the same. Elite ringette players often claim the game is faster than hockey, which is why they prefer it.

“If you get that ring on your stick, you can fly,” said Jessica Jones, a 22-year-old forward with the Lightning.

There are a few reasons for the speed. Gone are the coloured sticks that were part of the original game, and which kept players jailed in their assigned defensive and offensive zones.

Today, players can race the length of the ice, and passing rules eliminate offside situations found in hockey. Ringette players can cross the blueline before receiving a pass (although they can’t carry the ring over the blueline themselves), allowing fast transitions and rapid-fire passing.

There is also a shot clock, similar to basketball.

And because the ring is easier to handle than a puck, women can master stick-handling at younger ages, allowing them to develop in other areas such as playmaking and scoring.

Still, ringette enthusiasts are the first to admit that the sport has an image problem. The average sports fan doesn’t know what it is, or how it’s played. This can be problematic not just with recruiting new youngsters at the recreational level, but encouraging parents to get involved in the sport’s development.

“I think for the dads, we grew up playing hockey, so the support for that sport is very prevalent and it’s very easy to get sponsorship or other types of support,” said Dennis Jalonen, an organizer of recreational ringette programs in the Winnipeg area and vice-president of the St. James-Assiniboia Ringette Association.

“Ringette is kind of that odd other sport that is not quite like hockey, and people look at it and say, well, they look like hockey players, but I don’t understand the rules.”

Gaudet, whose two daughters both play the sport, says some parents are often turned off by the fact that ringette doesn’t offer the same opportunities for scholarships and Olympic glory as other sports. Aside from a handful of scholarships that are available, mostly in Alberta, elite ringette players must either pay for or fundraise to finance their sport.

“If we lose any [players to hockey], it’s back when they are very young and it’s their parents’ vision that they’re going to get a scholarship,” Gaudet said.

But even the most ardent hockey dad can be converted.

Peter Steele is the director for the Lightning, as well as the southern Ontario governor for the NRL. Years ago, he coached Junior A hockey in Edmonton, funnelling some of his players to the junior national team. He was exposed to ringette only because his daughter, who now plays for the Lightning, showed a keen interest in the game as a young girl. He says the sport is as competitive as any other.

“I love it when the boyfriends come out and the girls get to skate them into the ground,” Steele said.

Today, Canada is one of two international powerhouses in ringette. The other is Finland. So when Canada hosts the U-19 world championship in London over Christmas, it will likely come down to those two in the final. While the winner will be up for grabs, a good game is all but guaranteed.

“You get a ringette game that goes into overtime, it’s incredible,” Steele said.

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