Coach Tara Chisholm remembers sitting in a Brampton, Ont., hotel room in 2014, with piles of handed-down jerseys sent by Hockey Canada, for her women’s national para-hockey team to wear in an international event.
Hockey Canada gave the players jerseys that had belonged to the Canadian women’s hockey team, with their names still attached. Chisholm and some others removed the name bars by hand, so the Canadian para-hockey women could wear the sweaters in the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey Women’s International Cup.
Hockey Canada does not finance a national para-hockey women’s team – no money for things such as equipment, ice time, training, or travel.
Since assembling in 2006, this team of hockey players with disabilities has financed itself. Chisholm says the team has received $3,300 from Hockey Canada for some tournament fees, plus two sets of passed-along jerseys, some used hockey socks and their own name bars to stitch on.
“When I’ve asked for support, they say that’s not our job to support you,” said Chisholm, who is head coach alongside her husband, Derek Whitson, a former Canadian Paralympic hockey player who acts as assistant coach.
Tired of waiting on Hockey Canada, the players penned an open letter to corporate Canada this week, asking for $1-million in financial support in a campaign they call Sticks In, encouraged by the current reckoning happening in hockey.
“We believe that hockey should represent the diversity of Canada,” their letter says.
They write that their national team includes many identities: women with disabilities, non-binary, queer, Black, white, Indigenous, single mothers, caregivers, teachers, students and front-line workers. All hockey players.
Canadian Tire stepped up as the campaign’s first sponsor, announcing a multiyear commitment. Chisholm says other companies have called this week, too, and conversations are ongoing.
As Hockey Canada was mired in controversy over its handling of sexual-assault allegations, many companies paused their sponsorship or insisted the dollars go only to women’s teams. Canadian Tire Corp. severed its partnership with Hockey Canada in October, saying the national governing body for the sport “continues to resist meaningful change.”
“We are proud to support the Women’s National Para Hockey team as their first partner for the Sticks In campaign,” said Kim Saunders, Canadian Tire’s vice-president of environmental, social, governance and community impact. “This multiyear commitment will help ensure these women have the same opportunities as men to compete at the highest level of their sport. We have a deeply embedded commitment to creating a more diverse, equitable, safe and inclusive culture within hockey and aim to partner with organizations that share our values.”
The Canadians face competition from the United States and Europe, in tournaments such as the Para Ice Hockey Women’s World Challenge in Green Bay, Wisc., where they won silver behind the United States in August.
Hockey Canada has financed a men’s para-hockey team, which has played in the world championship and the Paralympics, since 2004. It is technically a co-ed team, and a few females have been invited to tryout camps. But those women didn’t receive any funds, such as the men did during preparation, further hurting their already tough chances of making the team in this full-contact sport.
Para-hockey is categorized as a mixed event at the Paralympics, yet only three women have competed in the Games since the sport was added to the Paralympics in 1994.
Hockey Canada hasn’t budged on funding a national para-hockey women’s team, even as Hockey USA has begun supporting its. Not even as the International Paralympic Committee and has stressed its desire to increase the number of women athletes at Paralympic Games – especially the Winter Games.
“As a national sport organization, Hockey Canada’s mandate is to operate national teams that compete internationally for world championships and participate in the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games,” Hockey Canada said in a statement. “At this time, there is no sanctioned world championship for women’s para hockey nor is it included in the Paralympic Winter Games.”
The women feel it’s hard to grow without the financing.
“It’s a vicious cycle of ‘we’ll support you when you have the numbers’, but we can’t get the numbers without the support,” said defenceman Claire Buchanan, who has been with the team for eight seasons. “It’s about time that people start believing in us and investing in us. We want to compete with the Maple Leaf on our chest, fighting for a gold medal in the sport that we love. It’s exciting to see big companies saying, ‘hey, we see you.’”
Buchanan also competed in wheelchair basketball, and was on Canada’s development team, where things such as travel and training were provided by the national federation. Some talented players from the women’s para-hockey team have gone to other sports, where costs are covered.
Buchanan, a single mom in Toronto with two jobs, says it can cost about $10,000 a year to attend national team events, on top of costs for recreational para-hockey. Buchanan says, “not a day goes by that I don’t think about fundraising.”
The team met with Hockey Canada in 2019, and since then the Hockey Canada Foundation has provided the sport with about $230,000 in grants. But those funds go to grassroots para-hockey, not national-team operations. So the women from the para-hockey team – most of whom also have coaching certifications because they enjoy mentoring – use the money to run events for grassroots development. It’s great for getting players together, introducing girls to the sport and for marketing. But the grants do little to strengthen the national-team players as athletes, who are fighting for inclusion in the Paralympics.
“When you’re looking at restructuring, reorganizing the culture within Hockey Canada, this is the time,” said Tracey Arnold of Saskatoon, the para-team’s goalie who re-discovered the sport as an adult, years after a car accident impacted her legs at age 12. “They could set a standard for what it means to be inclusive, providing equitable treatment to persons with a disability.”
Canada’s women’s para hockey team will start wearing a jersey with its own logo instead.