The article I wanted to write would have started like this: “Montrealers claim they love hockey, yet on a warm November night, the stands at Etienne-Desmarteau Arena were empty in front of a showcase of some of the best women’s hockey in the world.”
Had I written that, however, I would have been wrong. On both counts. The stands weren’t packed, but there were more than a few spectators—obviously loyal Montreal Axion fans—at E-D last Thursday. The hockey, unfortunately, was nowhere near world-class.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the speed and skill level were barely that of high school boy’s hockey. It’s an unfortunate comparison, but it continues to be made: women’s hockey just doesn’t measure up to the men’s game. The difference cited most often is the lack of body contact, which supposedly makes the women’s game faster, as does the increase in puck movement, which allegedly results in more set plays. Jacinthe Nolin, the third-string goalie for McGill University’s women’s team, commented to me during the Avs-Axion game, “Some people prefer women’s hockey because it’s a more beautiful game.” She went on to say, though, that she didn’t really agree with those people. Neither do I. The game I saw was nothing more than a slower, sloppier version of a men’s game.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the speed and skill level were barely that of high school boy’s hockey.
Now, it’s certainly unfair to take as typical a game between the Quebec Avalanche, the doormats of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL), and the Montreal Axion, the league’s perennial contenders. The Avalanche’s only star player is Kim St. Pierre, one of the goalies for Canada’s national team, and she missed this game—as well as the recent Four Nations Cup (which Canada won)—because of illness. The Axion ice a team that includes Charline Labonté, the third-string Olympic keeper; Gina Kingsbury, a forward on the national team, who scored four of the Axion’s eight goals on Thursday night; and Cathy Chartrand, a towering defencewoman who patrols Canada’s blue line. So it was a mismatch. Nonetheless, the game was compelling: I was drawn to the underdog Avalanche, hoping they would score at least one goal against the New York Yankees–like Axion. I kept waiting for a miracle, for some magic. It never came.
For miracles and magic to happen in hockey, a balance is required. In the NWHL, Olympian women play alongside girls fresh out of CEGEP as well as former university-level players. The CEGEP league is made up of eight teams, while there are only two women’s university teams in Quebec (McGill and Concordia), so the opportunities for play drop off dramatically once a player turns twenty. Surprisingly, the school teams have more rigorous schedules than the so-called professional squads. According to Jacinthe Nolin, McGill’s squad practices nearly every day, with games every weekend; the NWHL teams, however, practice only twice a week. Not only that, but the university teams are fully funded, with all equipment and travel paid for by the athletic departments. The Axion and Avalanche players have to dish out around $1,000 a season to play, their uniforms don’t always match, and they have to pay for their own meals on road trips. It’s nearly the same scandalous price young boys and girls have to pay for minor hockey in Toronto these days, thanks to Stuart Hyman.
So why do they do it? Well, why do forty-year-old men dish out similar sums to play a worse brand of hockey (a little more speed, a little less skill and a lot more cheap shots)? The answer is the same: they love to play. Jacinthe Nolin started playing in Abitibi when she was eight years old, but didn’t play with women until she was sixteen. The opportunity was there before that, but the competition just wasn’t stiff enough. She’s tried out for the Axion twice, both times unsuccessfully. As the backup at McGill next year, she expects to get more playing time. Meanwhile, she practices with the team every day. She knows who all the goalies are in Quebec, and she thinks she stacks up well against them—when she’s finished at McGill, she hopes to make the “big” team.
So why do they do it? Well, why do forty-year-old men dish out similar sums to play a worse brand of hockey? The answer is the same: they love to play.
With any luck, the NWHL will have improved by then. I don’t mean to sound negative; it’s just that I was thoroughly disappointed by the whole show. The Canadian national team is certainly of professional quality, but I can see why Hayley Wickenheiser wanted to play in Finland. Consider the following items that contribute to the quality of the game even if they don’t contribute to the quality of play. Both teams had uniforms that incorporated the worst of the Washington Capitals logos from both the eighties and the nineties: the Axion had red and blue stars alongside a bird of some sort, while the Avalanche had a mountain that looked suspiciously like the US Capitol building. The arena music was horrible, some weird-sounding jazz and Vanilla Ice (they did eventually play Stompin’ Tom, so that at least turned out okay). When Gina Kingsbury scored her hat trick, one knowledgeable fan tossed his (or her, I didn’t notice) hat onto the ice, but then the ref tossed it back instead of giving it to Kingsbury. The ref was a man—I thought the officials were also supposed to be women (they are in the Olympics).
Yes, all of these things are small and petty. But I would have easily overlooked them had the game really been as fast and clean as it’s purported to be. To be fair, there were some highlights: halfway through the second period, her team down by five goals, the Avalanche’s Nathalie Dery dropped to the ice to block a shot. The Masochist likes shot-blockers. The second goalie to play for the Avalanche, Emmanuelle Cabana, made some excellent saves, robbing the Axion’s Olympians on more than one occasion. Nolin, the local goal-keeping expert, was suitably impressed. Although Gina Kingsbury clearly outmatched her opponents, her goals were lovely to watch—hopefully, she will lead Canada to the gold medal in Turin in 2006. There was even a fight. I hesitate to call this a highlight, but in a game with no hitting allowed, a scrap is at least noteworthy. For their efforts, Genevieve Nadeau and Caroline Levesque of the Avalanche each got ten-minute misconducts, while Catherine Bertrand of the Axion got a black eye.
So at least I was entertained—which is the point, I believe. The Axion acknowledged this after the game when, following the traditional handshake with their opponents (all was forgiven, laughter replaced Bertrand’s grimace), the entire team turned in a line to salute the audience. The audience returned the favour, saluting not necessarily speed and skill, even in the case of the victors, but thanking the players for hockey in earnest.
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist appears every second Wednesday