Women’s Game ‘May Just Be The Pinnacle of Hockey'

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The symbolism could hardly have been more apt.

About to be presented with a Team Canada jersey to commemorate the 2013 women’s world championship, slated for Ottawa from April 2 to 9, Governor-General David Johnston insisted his No. 8 grandchild be brought to the podium.

Carried, actually, as Isabella Johnston Sendel is only 1 ½ years old.

Next winter, young Isabella will begin skating on the Rideau Hall outdoor ice rink, the same rink where another Isobel became a pivotal figure in the popularization of what would one day become the country’s national game.

Isobel Stanley - later Lady Isobel Gathorne-Hardy - was the daughter of another Governor-General, Lord Stanley of Preston, and she is not only considered one of the first women to play hockey but is widely believed to have been a force behind her father’s creation of the Stanley Cup, which was first awarded 120 years ago.

Governor-General Johnston and his wife Sharon will serve as patrons to this year’s world championship, carrying on a vice-regal connection to the women’s game that began with Isobel and today includes the Clarkson Cup, a gift from former Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson that serves as a Stanley Cup for women.

In front of a jersey-wearing local team and Team Canada stars Jennifer Botterill and Cheryl Pounder, today’s Governor-General spoke of the five Johnston daughters who played the game - daughter Sharon following in her father’s skatesteps to star at Harvard and captain the team at Cambridge. He talked, as well, about the thrill Canadians have felt as Canadian women won their string of world championships and three Olympic gold medals.

“In my opinion,” he told the gathering, “women’s hockey, which has made great strides in the last 25 years, may just be the pinnacle of hockey.”

They showed a video of the first world championship, held in Ottawa in 1990, and no one in the crowd smiled as wide as Murray Costello, the former head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (now Hockey Canada) who is often called the father of women’s hockey.

The real story, he says, is rather different than the myth.

If women’s hockey has a father, he says, that title belongs to someone who knew nothing of the game: Juan Antonio Samaranch, the former head of the International Olympic Committee.

In the 1980s, Samaranch became concerned that there were not enough events for women in the Winter Games. He suggested to Gunther Sabetzki, then head of the International Ice Hockey Federation, that perhaps there could be women’s hockey. If Sabetzki could pull it off, Samaranch promised he would help fast-track the sport into the Olympics.

Sabetzki turned to Costello and the CAHA to see if they would stage a women’s world championship.

The Canadians weren’t confident, but they agreed to try, so long as it would be in Ottawa, where the CAHA headquarters were and they could keep expenses to a minimum.

They scheduled the first women’s worlds for Ottawa in 1990 but, Costello says, “We were having no impact at all. No media. No ticket sales.”

A brash Ottawa sports administrator, Pat Reid, suggested they dress the team in pink - an idea that amused Costello but outraged his No. 2, Bob Nicholson, now president of Hockey Canada.

“I almost punched Murray in the nose,” Nicholson laughs at their heated exchange over Reid’s suggestion. “I wanted no part of it.”

“It was crazy,” Costello says. But he told Reid if he could sell the idea to the women he’d go along with it. Reid got the women to agree and then had a Tackla, a Montreal hockey-equipment company, come up with a design: pink jersey, pink socks, satin white pants.

Hockey traditionalists were outraged. The issue was even raised in Parliament.

But the media ate it up, both pro and con. “The discussion was on,” Costello says. The fans loved the idea so much that 9,500 packed the Civic Centre for the championship game - Canada vs USA, of course - and the winning goal, by Canada’s Geraldine Heaney, was tagged one of the best 10 goals of the year by Hockey Night In Canada.

“There was no looking back,” Costello says.

He took film of that tournament to the next IOC meeting, where he was immediately accused of “speeding up the film,” as women could not possibly skate that well or that fast. But by 1998, women’s hockey had become an Olympic sport.

Today, roughly 90,000 Canadian women of all ages play the game that Isobel Stanley discovered on the Rideau Hall rink and Isabella Johnston Sendel will one day play herself. The sport is huge in the United States and, hopefully, catching up in such countries as Sweden, Finland and Russia.

Did Murray Costello see all this coming nearly a quarter century ago when Pat Reid suggested pink?

“Never in my wildest dreams.”

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