Women's Hockey: a Primer

A brief history of women and girls on ice

A Century of Woman's Hockey
British Library/Wikimedia

Women and girls have taken to ice hockey in unprecedented numbers since the early 1990s. Female leagues and co-ed programs have changed the face of the game in many communities, and elite women's hockey has emerged as an intercollegiate and Olympic sport.

Women's Hockey Isn't New

But women's hockey is hardly a new game. In fact, women and girls have been forechecking, backchecking and crashing the crease for over a century.

The Canadian Hockey Association says the first recorded women's hockey game took place in 1892 in Barrie, Ontario. "Total Hockey," the official encyclopedia of the NHL, places the first game in Ottawa, where the Government House team defeated the Rideau ladies team in 1889. By the turn of the century, women's hockey teams were playing across Canada. Photos suggest that the standard uniform included long wool skirts, turtleneck sweaters, hats, and gloves.

This first era of women's hockey peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, with teams, leagues, and tournaments in almost every region of Canada and a few areas of the United States. Some of the best Canadian teams met annually in an East-West tournament to declare a national champion. The Preston (Ontario) Rivulettes became the first dynasty of women's hockey, dominating the game throughout the 1930s.

Abby Hoffman and the Ontario Supreme Court

The organized women's game declined after World War II and throughout the 1950s and 1960s was regarded as little more than a curiosity. Hockey was assumed to be the preserve of men and boys, an attitude confirmed in 1956 when the Ontario Supreme Court ruled against Abby Hoffman, a nine-year-old girl who challenged the "boys only" policy in minor hockey. Hoffman had already played most of the season with a boy's team, disguising her sex by dressing at home and wearing her hair short.

A revival began in the 1960s. Most girls attempting to join boys teams were still rejected. But women's hockey slowly gained ice time, and as the new generation of players grew up they demanded a chance to play at colleges and universities. Canadian intercollegiate women's hockey began in the 1980s and the NCAA recognized the game in 1993.

Women's World Ice Hockey Championship

An international breakthrough came in 1990 when eight countries contested the first Women's World Ice Hockey Championship. Participation grew exponentially in the decade that followed. Women's hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Games in Japan. In 2002 the Mission Bettys of California became the first all-girls team to enter the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament, one of the world's largest youth competitions.

Today the number of female hockey teams and leagues is at an all-time high. Mixed gender teams are also more common, especially in youth hockey. The game remains a male-dominated culture, but girls and women face much less of the obstruction and prejudice that frustrated their predecessors.

A few women, including goaltenders Manon Rheaume and Erin Whitten, have played on men's professional teams at the minor league level. In 2003, Hayley Wickenheiser joined Salamat of the Finnish Second Division and became the first woman to record a point in men's professional hockey, finishing the regular season with one goal and three assists in 12 games.

Although applauded by most fans, Wickenheiser's move inspired debate about women's and men's hockey. Some say elite women's hockey will never grow if the best players migrate to men's leagues. The president of the International Ice Hockey Federation, Rene Fasel, has declared his opposition to mixed teams.

"I don't understand why anyone should feel threatened," said Teemu Selanne, the NHL star who is part owner of the Salamat team. "This is the best women's hockey player we're talking about. It's not as if five or six women are going to start appearing on every men's team."

Canada and the United States

There may be more Wickenheisers to come, but for most women, the future is in the women's game. The rivalry between Canada and the United States is the marquee attraction. Canada's 3-2 win over the U.S. in the 2002 Olympic gold medal game drew a television audience of millions on both sides of the border.

The National Women's Hockey League began in 2000, giving top players on both sides of the border a chance to play outside the college or international systems. The Western Women's Hockey League was established in 2004.

Canada and the United States remain the dominant countries, and other nations must close the gap if women's hockey is to thrive at the international level. Sweden took a huge step forward in this regard by winning the silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, upsetting the USA in a landmark playoff game. The Swedish goaltender, Kim Martin, emerged as the new face of women's hockey with a standout performance.

Girl's and women's hockey is one of the fastest growing games in the world, suggesting that future fans and players will likely view this era as the infancy of a popular and widespread sport.