I always love the video clips that CBC's Hockey Night in Canada shows after the Stanley Cup has been awarded where players and coaches from the winning team introduce themselves and then state their hometowns and who their favourite hockey players were when they were kids. It makes me ask myself - if I was asked to participate in a feature like that who would I name as my favourite player? The obvious choices - Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman - come to mind as well as some less than obvious ones. But even as I run through the Lindens, the Odjicks, and the Sakics of the league I realize that as a kid I never worshiped one individual player. There was never a player whose jersey I had to have, whose posters covered my bedroom wall, and whose on-ice actions I always had to follow.
I never developed a "worshiping" for a player until 2002 when I was 13 years old. That is when, while flipping through the TV channels one night, I came across an Olympic hockey game between Canada and the USA. I watched for a few minutes and noticed that, while the players were a little slower than what I was used to watching, the caliber of play was still pretty good. At a stoppage in play the TV zoomed in on Canada's captain and the commentator mentioned her contributions to a local hockey program. HER contributions? As in female? That's when I found the player whose jersey I had to have, whose posters had to cover my bedroom walls, and whose on-ice actions I had to follow. Cassie Campbell became the mentor I'd been looking for. With every touch of the puck I became mesmerized by the game and my respect for Campbell and her team mates grew. These were women who had defied all odds to live the dream of being professional hockey players. They were everyday Canadian girls just like you and me - simple, hardworking, and different from the stereotypical makeup-wearing, anorexic looking girls that society expects us to be. In the span of that one game I went from not even knowing about women's hockey to suddenly being able to close my eyes and picture myself out there with them.
That game, of course, was the women's hockey gold medal game at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City - the first Olympics in which our country's national women's team won gold. I still remember an emotional Hayley Wickenheiser, hair drenched in sweat, tears streaming down her face, gold medal around her neck saying in her post-win interview "The Americans had our flag on their floor in the dressing room, and now I want to know if they want us to sign it. We are so happy." Shortly afterward Captain Canada in tears herself said, ""I feel so dumb sitting here crying but I really can't explain how this feels to me right now. It's been four long years of thinking of that disappointment in '98 and finally bringing the gold medal home to the country where it belongs, we deserve it." To see hockey players showing such emotion, to see them wanting to win not for the money but for the glory and for the love of the game, to see them bleeding red and white was like looking at myself in a mirror. I felt an instant connection with these women whom I'd never even met. I knew in that moment that I had found my heroes.
The next 8 years, for me, became defined by that gold medal win. The effects of it were instantaneous. Suddenly I saw ads for female hockey leagues at the local rinks, the hockey shops started carrying female-specific equipment, and most importantly, there was a slight shift in the attitudes of the general public where people began to realize that women can play hockey too. The attitudes of women like myself began to shift too. Suddenly I realized that it was okay to be different, that it was okay to have a passion which wasn't the most "womanly" (whatever that means!), and that it was possible to chase a dream while still keeping up with the responsibilities that come with being a woman. I was able to join recreational leagues where I still play today and where new dreams were born and fulfilled. The greatest learning lessons and some of the the best moments of my life have come from hockey and for that I will be forever grateful. Looking back now though, I still feel that 2002 was a missed opportunity for me. Had I pursued my dream more aggressively and not been so hung up on how it would affect my academics or what would happen if I failed, I think I would have been able to wear the red and white too.
Unfortunately it was not meant to be, so now my role in women's hockey is different. I can take advantage of cyberspace and do what I can to tell my story in the hopes that it will make people realize that cutting the sport from the Olympics and giving up on it will lead to more unfulfilled dreams for other young girls. Women's hockey and women's sports in general are here to stay. They are a part of the changing cultural norms in the world where females are becoming career oriented and joining male counterparts in the workplace. Let's keep in mind that over 80% of the medals won by Canada at both the '06 Torino games and the '10 Vancouver games were won by women. If women's hockey is removed from the Olympics it will eventually make its comeback 5,10 or 15 years down the road. But in that time we will have lost an entire generation of potential superstars. We will lose the legacies of Campbell, Wickenheiser, and all the ladies who have been a part of my life, and all the progress that has been made thus far will be lost. It is up to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the national hockey federations of each country to come together and give the game a chance. This is not a time to threaten the sport or to point fingers about why we are in this situation where Canada and the USA are the only two competitive nations. This is an opportunity to come together, use the superstars to devise a game plan, and give the sport and its athletes the resources they need to be successful. All over the world right now there are young girls waiting to be inspired. Let's appeal to them and ignite the passion within.
On that rainy Vancouver evening in 2002 when Cassie Campbell stood arm-in-arm with her team mates and sang O Canada as the maple leaf was raised to the rafters I knew what my answer would be if CBC ever wanted to do a feature on who my favourite hockey player was. Let's make sure that future generations of female players have an answer to their question too.