For the second year in a row, despite the pandemic, Canada’s top young men’s hockey prospects hit the ice for the IIHF World Junior Championship just before Christmas. For the second year in a row, the IIHF U18 women’s world championship, the equivalent of the World Juniors for future stars of the women’s game, was cancelled before a single puck was dropped.
Although the men’s World Juniors were cancelled after two and a half days of play due to COVID-19 cases among participating teams, local women’s hockey advocates say the fact the men’s tournament was allowed to go ahead while the women’s was cancelled sends the wrong kind of message.
“It’s quite an image, to have the men playing for a few days and not to give the women a chance at all,” says Sherbrooke-born McGill University Martlets goalie Tricia Deguire. “A lot of people are sacrificing their time and energy for the women’s game, and these decisions make it hard for us to continue.”
She laments the missed opportunity for young players to compete on the world stage. “For some players, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and people’s dreams are crushed. It’s really hard to see young players unable to participate.”
The pandemic has dealt a blow to the considerable efforts that Deguire and others are making to raise the profile of women’s hockey in the province. Cancelled tournaments are the tip of the iceberg.
“We have had fewer young people signing up for hockey in the last few years, because they want to try other sports that are less likely to be impacted by public health restrictions,” says Nicolas Bélanger, women’s hockey director and Yamaska-Missisquoi program director at the Association de hockey de Granby. Bélanger says both boys and girls are drifting away from hockey due to COVID-19 restrictions, but the impact is felt more on girls’ and mixed teams because there are fewer girls overall. Across all age groups, there are nine boys for every one girl, and about half the girls play on mixed teams.
“Before the pandemic, we were getting more and more [girls] involved,” Bélanger says. “At the provincial level, there has been a girls’ minor hockey league for six years, and there’s been an interregional league for three years. There have always been fewer teams, and girls’ teams have had to travel farther, but we were trying to reduce these difficulties by setting up more teams.”
The Eastern Townships have become a hub for girls’ hockey development in recent years, with minor hockey opportunities in Granby and Sherbrooke and vibrant programs at Stanstead College, École secondaire Le Triolet and Bishop’s University (ranked second nationally in 2021). Hockey Sherbrooke also organizes an annual girls’ tournament, and the region is scheduled to host the 2022 Coupe Dodge women’s tournament, if pandemic restrictions don’t interfere.
“The boys work toward playing in the QMJHL or the NHL; the girls work toward playing in college, university or the national team,” says Gilles de Blois, president and women’s hockey coordinator at Hockey Estrie. “Now that more girls know they can play college hockey, we should get more players. It’s a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ problem; if we signed up more girls, there would be more girls’ teams for them to play against. We can only hope that our teenagers will keep playing [despite the pandemic] and the volunteers will come back. There’s still a lot more to do in terms of promotion.”
“I’d love to hear local radio stations promoting the Bishop’s University women’s games the same way they do with the Sherbrooke Phoenix [in the QMJHL],” says Deguire, the McGill goalkeeper, who wants to try her luck in professional women’s hockey when her university days are over. “Marketing will help a lot, and the 2022 Olympic tournament will also be a big boost for us.” With the growth of the Premier Hockey Federation, a women’s professional league established in 2016, Deguire believes it’s “only a matter of time” before elite female players become household names outside of the Olympics. In the meantime, as pandemic uncertainty continues to overshadow the hockey world, she and her contemporaries are determined to “set an example for the next generation.”