When the Canadian women’s hockey team faces Switzerland on Feb. 3 in Beijing, Victoria’s Micah Zandee-Hart, 25, will become the first B.C.-born women’s hockey player ever to suit up for Canada at a Winter Olympics. It’s a huge accomplishment for her, but the very fact that this is a first raises concerns about the state of the sport for women in the province.
The root problem: Women’s hockey in B.C. lacks resources, development and exposure.
As a sports journalist, I’m about to cover my sixth Olympic women’s hockey tournament. I’ve seen how the women’s game flourishes when celebrated to the fullest – and what happens when it isn’t.
At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, I watched Marie-Philip Poulin score twice in Canada’s 2-0 gold-medal victory over the U.S. in front of an ecstatic Olympic-record crowd of 16,805 at Canada Hockey Place (now Rogers Arena). Another 7.5 million Canadians watched on TV. Over all, the Games also achieved the highest-ever total attendance for Olympic women’s hockey (162,419). It felt like a turning point for women’s hockey in B.C.
Think about a 13-year-old Ms. Zandee-Hart – and thousands of other B.C. girls – watching 18-year-old Ms. Poulin capture the global spotlight. That moment should have opened the floodgates for B.C. women to achieve hockey stardom – even if B.C.’s mild climate historically means fewer backyard rinks and more girls playing soccer.
And yet, it didn’t. Surely, 12 years later, more than one B.C. player should be going to the Winter Games.
Hockey Canada’s latest available statistics, from 2019–20, show that B.C. has more than 9,000 registered female hockey players. Ontario has roughly three times B.C.’s population but more than five times as many registered female players – 51,465 – and will send 12 of them to Beijing. The gap shouldn’t be that wide – but it has been that way for years.
In 2013, CBC reported that the Vancouver Park Board allocated minor hockey ice time based on historical precedent, meaning that boys’ teams took priority over girls’. BC Hockey’s 2018 Female Hockey Report said the sport was growing at 5 per cent annually in B.C., compared with about 7 per cent in other provinces, citing a lack of competitive local teams and female-specific skills-development opportunities. Victoria didn’t have an all-female minor hockey association until 2019.
The visibility of female icons is important too. Metro Vancouver is home to some certified women’s hockey legends, albeit not homegrown. Take Cammi Granato, who captained the 1998 U.S. Olympic gold-medal-winning team. Or Meghan Agosta, originally from Ruthven, Ont., the 2010 Olympic MVP. But retired stars such as Ms. Granato and Ms. Agosta can only do so much to expand the women’s game, such as appearing at WickFest, Hayley Wickenheiser’s annual female hockey festival in Surrey.
And unlike their male counterparts, many of whom retire from the NHL as multimillionaires, female hockey stars often have to work full-time jobs to support themselves. Ms. Granato now scouts for the Seattle Kraken and Ms. Agosta works as a police officer with the Vancouver Police Department. In contrast, former NHL goalie Ryan Miller, the 2010 Olympic men’s hockey MVP, retired with more than US$62-million in career earnings.
It’s hard for girls in B.C. to see their hockey heroines in person. Since 2010, B.C.’s only major international women’s hockey event has been the 2016 IIHF Women’s World Championship in Kamloops, where Canada finished second behind the U.S.
Vancouver hasn’t had a pro women’s team since the long-defunct Vancouver Griffins, which existed from 2000 to 2003 but never got enough media coverage to attract crowds.
The Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) – including all the top Canadian and U.S. players aiming to form a sustainable pro league – has training hubs in Calgary, Toronto, and Montreal, but not Vancouver. Hockey Canada’s headquarters are in Calgary, while Toronto and Montreal are long-time women’s hockey hotbeds.
After the 2010 Olympic final, the U.S. and Canadian national teams went 10 years without facing each other in Vancouver until an underpublicized Feb. 5, 2020, exhibition game I covered. According to Courtney Szto, a Queen’s University hockey researcher, the host Vancouver Canucks tweeted just once about the game (on the day of). Fewer than 8,500 fans showed up at Rogers Arena. Three days later, more than 13,000 watched the U.S. and Canada clash in the less-ardent hockey market of Anaheim, Calif., where the event was heavily promoted as part of a weekend celebrating women’s sports.
Lack of publicity wasn’t the only problem at that Vancouver game, which the U.S. won 3-1. Shots on goal totals – a basic in-game statistic fans expect to see on the Jumbotron – were simply unavailable until hours after the teams left the ice. In B.C., women’s hockey should no longer have to beg for the fundamentals, whether it’s proper statistics or equitable access to dressing rooms.
The pandemic has made things harder. Seeing the Under-18 Women’s World Championship cancelled for the second straight year owing to COVID-19 fears stunned emerging B.C. stars such as Brooke Disher and Sara Swiderski. The teens had aspired to emulate Ms. Zandee-Hart, who coached them at Kelowna’s RINK Hockey Academy, by representing Canada at that tournament in Sweden in January. They’re hoping for a rescheduled world championship this summer.
Ultimately, whether Ms. Zandee-Hart returns from Beijing with a gold medal or not, she and the next generation of elite B.C. players need more support. Hockey is Canada’s official national winter sport. Women’s hockey deserves a bigger B.C. presence.