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Women got game: Not just another pretty face-off

Not just another pretty face-off

Photo: Jocelyn Michel

The NWHL takes top-notch hockey to community hockey leagues across the Island

Testosterone has been blamed as the root cause of many an overzealous hockey player’s suspension. But PMS?

"I never usually retaliate, but for some reason that night, after being picked on all game and cross-checked, I lost control – I don’t know, maybe I was PMS-ing," says Lisa Marie Breton-Lebreux of her recent four-game suspension, sheepishly flashing one of her brilliant smiles over an early lunch.

Ranked third in the women’s professional league, Breton is the captain of the Montreal Axion, one of seven teams who play in the women’s NHL. In Quebec, the Axion and the Avalanche boast six national team players between them, including the first- and second-ranked female goalies in Canada, a slew of provincial champions and the leading scorer in the league. And every week they play games that put fans on the edge of their seats.

So why aren’t viewers gathered around their television sets watching the Montreal Axion face-off against the Toronto Aeros on Monday nights?

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In the NWHL, brawn and blood falter in the face of finesse and intricate playmaking. Sure, naughty sticks and checking happen, but the penalties are severe. The league avoids punch-up violence by focusing on a more European stick-to-stick and sophisticated skill-based style that includes lots of passing. Which isn’t to say these ladies aren’t tough – most converts come away in awe of the players’ physicality and the corner digging. For disgruntled NHL fans, it’s a dream league: plenty of speed and that magic, elusive O – offense. Plus, the goals are pretty.

According to Michael Charbon, executive producer of broadcast properties for the NWHL, the 2005 NWHL Championship game will again be broadcast nationally, as it has been over the past six years, but it won’t be by the CBC, who hosted the three-hour broadcast that threw directly to Hockey Night in Canada last year.

"It’s not for neglect on the part of the viewer’s standpoint. Women’s hockey has its place. We’ve shown it in international competition and in the gold medal game in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. We harbour the best calibre players in the world," says Charbon. "The problem is that for broadcasters, television is about money, and high-profile sports with all its financial backing and sponsors drives what we watch."

You would think that the strike would have provided a dream opportunity for our national TV station to give air time to a shamefully underexposed area of Canada’s favourite sport, but while the pro men and their owners butt heads over the NHL’s customary big, cushy lifestyle and big, shiny bucks, the women in the NWHL continue to toil away in relative obscurity, redefining the meaning of pro hockey, which – at this stage in the game – still doesn’t earn them a salary.

"The guys make millions. We start out $1,000 in the red on the Axion and fundraise to try and break even," explains Breton-Lebreux.

"Most of us lead double lives: as a pharmacist, a police officer, or as students," says Breton-Lebreux, herself a coach to two female teams by night and a personal trainer at women’s gym Curves by day. "It’s tough, but we love it." In women’s hockey, there are no guarantees – players who aren’t earning the stipend as members of the national team can’t quit their day jobs. Few of the women hockey players earn endorsements, not even the stars of the game, and sponsors are difficult to come by.

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Breton-Lebreux’s Montreal Axion are currently the undisputed top squad in Quebec, ranked second overall in the league, but despite their success, each of the past six seasons since the league’s inauguration has been a tough sell for owners. Most involved in the league are volunteers, and everyone, from league commissioner Susan Fennell (she’s also the mayor of Brampton) to coaches, equipment staff and players, maintains the hope that the league has a bright future, even if it won’t ever be a cash cow.

Whether it is their experience of being outside the spotlight, having less access to the traditional brokerages of power ruling the male-dominated sport-media business, or from watching the mistakes of the NHL, the NWHL is learning to come up with creative solutions to make ends meet.

Avalanche owner and businessman Vinnie Matteo, for example, has developed a method that seems almost visionary in comparison to the NHL. The meagre $100,000 annual budget for his team (entirely paid out of his own pocket) is being poured directly back into equipment and travel, and, just as importantly, into forging outreach programs with girls’ minor hockey leagues in Montreal.

Convention would have it that the best way to have a successful hockey franchise would be to have a stable fan base, a home arena and retrieve revenue from the gate. But instead of maintaining home ice, which is expensive, the Avalanche criss-cross the Island to play in arenas big and small. Their nomadic strategy, says manager Mario Limperis, is an attempt to help gain exposure for the team and league where it most matters, at the grassroots level, while at the same time inspiring youth and developing a stronger infrastructure for minor hockey in Montreal communities.

Think of the Avalanche as the local DIY "indie" squad of the hockey universe: With no home ice of their own, the team enlist the co-operation of minor league outfits to host their "home" games. This week, for example, the Montreal East girls’ hockey league will arrange the ice time, promote the game and sell up to 600 tickets to their friends, family and community. In exchange, they will get to meet stars from Team Canada like Kim St-Pierre and Charline Labonté in person, and the minor team gets to pocket the door revenues at the end of the night.

It’s a strategy that is keeping the women’s pro league grounded in and growing out of grassroots, community-level play – a concept seemingly at odds with the fundamental philosophy of today’s NHL.

So maybe being out of site and away from big business and broadcasting deals is its own kind of blessing in disguise for the integrity of hockey in Canada – a rare opportunity for hockey to step out of the shadows of the NHL and explore different ways the game can be organized and played.

After all, it seems like women’s hockey is offering up something men’s pro hockey has been lacking, something that is rare in sport achievements: a win-win game.

The Quebec Avalanche play the Montreal Axion in a community outreach game to benefit Montreal East minor hockey this Saturday, Dec. 18, 6:30 p.m., at Centre Récréatif Édouard-Rivest in Montreal East (11111 Notre-Dame St. E., 640-2737). Adults: $8, kids $6. For more info: www.nwhlhockey.com, www.montrealaxion.com, or www.quebecavalanche.com for further details and league schedules.

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Hockey ain’t dead just ’cause it ain’t on TV

The big boys may not be lacing up for HNIC, but die-hard hockey nuts are – all across Quebec and Canada, in record numbers. Yep, the girls and women are taking to the ice in full force, and all variety of unlikely folk are lacing up as well: from the elderly, to gay dudes, to couples… whether you have a hankering to be a puck bunny, discover a new social circle, or find a hot date for these cold winter nights, hockey’s a great fix.

Ligue nord-américaine de hockey (LNAH)

Love the Hansen Bros.? Suffering from NHL withdrawal? If blood and punch-ups turn your crank, the LNAH is your best bet this winter. Satisfying the penchant for blood lust and a desire to see great offence (NHL be damned), games are fast-paced, highly skilled affairs – lots of shooting and scoring with kooky, rousing fans and cheap beer. A quick metro ride and you’re back to those nostalgic 1950s feats of masculine derring-do – and it’s only $15 a pop. New convertee Bob Weyersberg raves: "Highly entertaining. For the cost of one average NHL outing, I can go to three [Verdun] Dragons games and be surrounded by people who work for a living in a no-bullshit, non-advertising-saturated, not-overcrowded environment, where it’s clearly about hockey above all else." Info: www.lnah.ca.

Exclaim! Hockey Association

Hipster-meets-hockey in the Exclaim league, a Canada-wide amateur league made up of rock stars (Sam Roberts, Sloan), journalists, art fags and indie music geeks – guys and gals. Rockin’ hockey’s traditional penchant for violence and a same-sex divide, the league champions camaraderie and sportsmanship. Montreal team the Ninja Tunes only got started up last year, so they are few in number – but what they lack in depth they make up for in style. Every week they play each other in order to get into shape for the debaucherous weekend "Hootenany" Summit Cup Finals in April. Info: www.exclaimhockey.ca.

Les Dragons de Montréal

Don Cherry may not like sissies or fags (even though he does seem to like kissing other men), but the Dragons sure do. While men’s hockey may not typically give homos a warm reception, it’s no surprise that at least a few gays are drawn to the bump and grind of the male-dominated, testosterone-fuelled exercise. Luckily, gay hockey leagues are popping up all over metropolitan cities these days, so open that closet door, boys, grab your sticks and get out there. Les Dragons play every Monday night at the local Village arena. Info: pages.infinit.net/dragons.

Outdoor rinks

There is nothing very pure about hockey, but whipping around on a cold winter’s night under twinkling lights at Parc Lafontaine is as close as it gets. The joys of shinny and pleasure skating can be had free of charge all across the city during winter. There are quaint little rinks in most neighbourhoods – so keep an eye out. Francos and anglos mingle, girls and boys mix, it’s northern poetry in motion. Besides the odd bonehead wannabes, during slow hours these rinks are the best place to learn to skate and during evenings healthy competition can be found. Buy second-hand skates or rent a pair at Beaver Lake at the top of Mount Royal, or head down to the Old Port outdoor rink for picturesque winter skating à la Montréalaise. Info from the city’s parks and recreation department: 847-9664

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