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tom hawthorn

They called themselves Vamps and Kewpies and Amazons.

In the early days, they wore long skirts as befitted Victorian ladies. Soon, they were donning stylish outfits of their own design, complete with navy collars and short skirts with trim, not to mention nickel-plated ice skates.

In time, they skated freely in bloomers, their team identity proudly presented in colourful wool sweaters.

Long before Hayley Wickenheiser first laced a skate, decades before the inauguration of the Winter Olympics, a handful of daring women in British Columbia defied convention by taking to the ice to play hockey.

They endured the teasing and taunting of male spectators, read sneering accounts of their matches in the daily newspapers. In time, they won a begrudging respect for the ferocity of their play.

For several years, women's teams competed in a tournament during an annual winter carnival at Banff, Alta. The winner took home the Alpine Cup as the champion women's hockey team of Western Canada.

Wayne Norton, a Victoria author, has written Women on Ice after stumbling across the fascinating and little-known story of female hockey players.

A coal miner's son and a teacher by training, he was researching the history of Fernie when he came across a striking photo of a women's team. Not much of a sports fan, he was intrigued by the notion of pioneering athletes, as well as by the unlikely symbol worn on the front of their sweaters.

He embarked on a long research project to uncover the forgotten tale. He spent untold hours poring over microfilm of old newspapers, piecing together fragmentary accounts.

In 1897, a women's team formed in Sandon, a mining boomtown in the Kootenays known as the Monte Carlo of North America and the Silver City in the Clouds. This was followed by reports of rival teams in Moyie, Kaslo, Nelson, Slocan, Phoenix, Silverton, New Denver and Grand Forks. By 1901, Rossland boasted two teams in the Stars and the Crescents.

"I imagine the style of play was quite gentle," Mr. Norton said. "Tentative, I suppose. You have to remember what they were wearing - long skirts and heavy sweaters."

The arrival in Nelson of Joseph Patrick from Montreal would be the most important development in the history of hockey in the province. While the elder Mr. Patrick opened a lumber company, his sons came west to play hockey for the city team. Frank and Lester Patrick would both enjoy long careers, earning induction in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Mr. Norton reports their three sisters also played hockey in Nelson, their exploits much less known than those of their famous brothers.

The Patrick brothers eventually moved to the coast, opening grand arenas with artificial ice in Vancouver and Victoria. They signed top-notch male players for their new professional Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Soon, amateur women played games between periods of men's games. Their coach, Pete Muldoon, gave a demonstration of skating on stilts.

The women's game held some promise as a box-office attraction, as they began to play a grittier style.

A group of young, unmarried women who had attended high school in the West End formed the Vancouver Amazons. They counted among themselves a future teacher, a stenographer, a registered nurse, a bank clerk and two office workers. Norah and Phebe Senkler were sisters from a prominent family, as their father was a respected barrister and their mother the daughter of a former lieutenant-governor.

In Victoria, the women called themselves the Kewpies. In Seattle, they were the Vamps, though a newspaper in a rival city preferred to describe them as the Sweeties.

The Vancouver newspapers improved the tone of their coverage, noting the Amazons practised "with the grim earnestness of a modern Joan of Arc." Hockey fans were encouraged to support "Vancouver's dazzling aggregation of lady puck-chasers."

Sometimes, the game's star received a box of Purdy's chocolates.

The team's main attraction was Kathleen Carson, said to possess a shot as hard as a man's. She eventually married team manager Guy Patrick, another of the brothers.

The Amazons travelled to the Banff tournament for the first time in 1921, with Frank Patrick's wife, Catherine, as chaperone. The Calgary Regents won that year, the Amazons triumphed the next, while the Fernie Swastikas claimed the title in 1923.

The Swastikas wore red sweaters with a large crooked cross on the chest, having adopted as their club name the ancient symbol of good fortune, which was popularly used in the pre-Nazi era in the same fashion as the shamrock.

More than 1,000 spectators attended home games in the Rocky Mountain community.

A stalwart on defence for the Swastikas was the mayor's daughter. Miss Dorothy Henderson, as she was inevitably described, died unexpectedly after a brief illness a year after her team's triumph at Banff.

Women's hockey petered out during the Depression and disappeared during the war, not to be revived for decades.

Women on Ice, published by Ronsdale Press, is Mr. Norton's eighth book. By coincidence, he did his teaching practicum at King George High in Vancouver's West End, the very school he would later discover had been attended by the young woman who formed the Amazons.



There's one final, unsolved mystery in Wayne Norton's pursuit of women's hockey lore.

The Alpine Club of Canada donated a silver trophy to the sport - tall and narrow, like a champagne flute, with matching handles at the top. Women did ferocious battle for the prize. Today, the Alpine Cup is lost.

"I would love to find it," Mr. Norton says.

He believes the trophy likely wound up with a player in either Calgary or Red Deer. Here's hoping some Alberta household is puzzled by the provenance of a practical household item - perhaps in use as a vase - that has behind it a rich story.

Tom Hawthorn