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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?

ooo

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.

ooo

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.

ooo

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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  17 comments

  • by Selena Lobo - December 9, 2004, 12:23 pm

    I must admit I was not aware that there was an NWHL. But I love the idea that women are slowly infiltrating these male dominated sports. Especially with the hockey strike maybe this will give the girls a chance to shine.

    NHL Hockey is such a big thing especially in Canada but maybe other teams will profit from this especially smaller and lesser known teams. If you don’t have a chance to go to the Bell Centre to see the games maybe you can go to your local rink and watch some locals strut their stuff. One man’s strike is another man’s profit.

    Hockey ain’t dead you just have to find it in lesser known places.

  • by Marc Charette - December 9, 2004, 1:47 pm

    First of all, it is great that we get an article about these women. I am not sure they would have received any coverage at all had the NHL not been on strike. It took years for women’s international hockey to be covered. It will at least take that for local hockey to receive the same acknowledgement.

    These women are good athletes but they don’t show off their body like Kournikova used to do. Let’s face it. Sport coverage is still decided by men. And even though they make some room for women’s sports, there is still often a very sexist way to approach it. How often will we hear about a woman’s body or clothes. Something we very rarely hear about male athletes. Unless these women wear lingerie on top of their hockey gear, it will take some time for them to make it to prime time.

  • by Maria Cecillia Silva - December 9, 2004, 2:06 pm

    Hey you are lucky if you can go about your everyday business without getting mugged , shot, stabbed or rapped. This skating rinks are out there and I remember skating in some of them when I was a kid.I would not encourage my kids to go skate there today. In those days we had a city guy in the dressing room who kept an eye on things and kept the place warm so we could go and warm up while skating. No such luck today the city can’t even salt the streets your skating on the roads with out the skates. They also sharpened the skates for us. The police where constantly doing there rounds around the parks. In those days we did not have as much violence either, kids had more fun and they where less into crime.
    As for this woman hockey player well good for her. If we have guys being born with a lot of female hormons , I am sure we have women being born with too much male harmons. But really is that all necessary. If you are going to play hockey you should be using technique , brains and skill not your fist and muscles. This goes for weather you ar a guy or a girl , there is no room for violence. I stopped watch hockey years ago when they started useing the rinks for bashing the other team instead of playing a good clean game. I will never watch this sport again as long as it uses violence in the play. Your also giving a very bad example for the younger viewers. So don’t come here and tell us your story about PMS and you being benched you should be kicked out of sports altogether !

  • by Larissa Dutil - December 10, 2004, 1:49 am

    Its about time.

    Seriously, its sad that it took a stupid Hockey Strike to get these Women the attention they deserve.

    I think that this is proof that when the norm is challenged (NHL Hockey League) creative people take up the slack and come up with new and better ways and ideas. We need more of this. More examples of how the norm needs to be challenged, in different ways.

    Go team go!

  • by Oliver Domenchini - December 10, 2004, 2:55 am

    Come on girls, stop your whining.Hockey is a gritty sport and if your league is going to prosper , you’re going to have to be tough off, and on the ice.
    The men’s league has a longer history and grew in a patriarchal society.So not unlike many other progressions in women’s issues things are going to take time.Even the guys took decades to gain respectable salaries ,pension plans,etc.
    It is a sad oversight though.Many successful ventures have been built on the ability to capitalise on opportunity.The present squabble in the NHL would have been the perfect time for women to promote the hell out of their game.Grab the available spotlight.Hustling hard now could have advanced the cause by years.Too bad.For you and us,the fans.
    Personally,I’ve greatly enjoyed the women’s hockey I’ve watched.Mostly Olympic so far.I don’t know if the excitement will ever compare to NHL playoff hockey,but it could easily be a viable alternative to NHL regular season hockey which I barely watch anymore anyway.
    As for entertainment value,it will progress naturally.As teams and players develop a history and familiarity with each other and the fans.Hockey is an aggressive and high adrenaline game.Hitting and fights will occur whether people like it or not,regardless of the punishment.Ultimately,I believe this is a win win situation.
    Keep your sticks on the ice,heads up and your eyes on the prize.Most importantly persevere,do whatever it takes to let the community know you are out there,that you are as serious as you say you are.You are the pioneers.

  • by Shaun King - December 10, 2004, 3:32 am

    Women’s hockey may seem like a novel idea for many Montrealers and Quebecers, but it has been flourishing in Ontario (especially in the Greater Toronto Area) for decades now. And there is a lot to be said about the many hundreds of talented players who compete in this “manly sport”. For those of us who have become fed up of all the cheap shots in hockey today, from the never-ending hooking to vicious hitting from behind, the female version is certainly a breath of fresh air on a troubled sport. It would be great if more diehard fans of “our national sport” would take a few hours to actually go out and watch a game or two. Considering the lack of our favorite pastime this season, not a bad idea, eh? I think many will be surprised by the level of talent and dedication that these girls have and demonsrtate. It is certainly more a rendition of talent and finesse than of brawn and roughhouse play. The skating, stick handling, passing and goal-scoring may remind us of past Olympic glory. Go girls go!

  • by Barry Robinson - December 10, 2004, 10:31 am

    Good for the NWHL, you have women playingHockey the way it should be played: FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME! I like the fact that these women all have second jobs to support their passion, it prevents a person from getting too full of themself (I refer to the big babies whining in the NHL). I am by no way trying to be sexist here, I have the same respect for the CFL, the guys do the same thing, they have day jobs outside of playing and practices.

    I’ll go see a few games, frankly, I miss watching hockey. I do take in Concordia University Women’s Hockey because it rocks!

    What the league does need is better advertising!?! I didn’t know the league existed until The Hour ran this article (which is probably the case for lots of readers).

    Let’s hope the NHL folds and leagues like the NWHL do well with their fan-base. I was getting tired of paying through the nose for tickets, just so some professional could take my money to buy something to put up his nose!

    The NWHL is definitely a win-win scenario if people give it a chance.

  • by Nicolas Gauthier - December 11, 2004, 4:16 am

    Well it’s quite simple to explain why there’s no more support for this. Most obviously people have not heard about the league. I mean, I like sport, but it’s the first time I heard about this league. It’s not normal knowing that the NHL is in lock-out. Basically I suppose we should have heard more about these woman.

    We have heard about the NAHL, we’ve heard about the men playing in Europe. But nothing not a clue about woman professionnal hockey. Boy do they make it bad. At least I knew that there was a WNBA in basketball and I am not a fan from that game. From what I’ve seen in the World championships and the Olympics, these woman got game. In fact it may be a little slower but there are not many man who could match up with them.

    Actually I believe the QMJHL and the NWHL are missing the boat. We do not hear about these league often enought while working conflict is still preventing the Montreal Canadien to get the attention. Okay, there is no junior team in the Montreal region. But we should still hear about the Axion. The league that really make ground is the North American Hockey League now and it’s not the best technical hockey.

  • by Carmela Sicurella - December 11, 2004, 6:02 pm

    It would take for an NHL strike for Women’s hockey to get attention and now it’s getting a lot of publicity because it is the only hockey action that is going around town that is fun to watch. The NWHL is a fantastic league that has many great female hockey players playing from all around the world. Women hockey players are as tough as the male hockey player and one day a female will get the chance to play NHL hockey with the big boys and show them who’s boss on the ice. I’m glad that The Hour made this front page material because we need hockey bad at the moment.

  • by Pedro Eggers - December 11, 2004, 7:49 pm

    So why aren’t viewers gathered around their television sets watching the NWHL on Monday nights?

    You’re kidding, right?

    At the risk of sounding like a sexist pig, only a woman could have asked that kind of question.

    Women want to be considered equal to men and yet they just can’t grasp why men and women will most likely ever share relative equality. Men already get this. Women can do anything men can, right?

    Bull.

    Women can do *most anything* men can and vice versa. Some things we are just better at and vice versa. That isn’t a sexist knock, simply a basic truth.

    Is hockey one of those things that woman will never measure up to us in?

    No…and yes.

    Why yes?

    In the hearts of true sports fans women’s hockey is never going to be more than just a curiosity. We want our hockey and we want our hockey the way we want it. Fans of any entertainment medium feel pretty much the same about their comfort pleasures.

    Women’s hockey is good but from a marketing perspective it has its work cut out for it.

  • by Marco Facchin - December 11, 2004, 8:24 pm

    No matter what league exists or if its a womans league or a mans league, or juniors or whatever…Nothing compares to the NHL. They are the cream of the crop and thats what people wanna watch in any sport. So until the boys of hockey decide to swallow their pride and admit that they are being overpayed then we will just have to settle for second rate hockey.

  • by Robert Bichage - December 12, 2004, 1:10 pm

    womens hockey rocks.

    another season and yet another lockout. Leads me to wonder if the players have something against the fans – salaries bottoming out at 300K are hardly chump change but that’s just the way it goes. For the record, players do a lot of work and end up at the bottom of the big money sports food chain. I know this. They know it too. So they’re just trying to get what they believe is their fair share of the loot. Maybe what they’re asking for is fair and maybe it isn’t, but hockey fans don’t care – we just want this thing sorted out as soon as possible, any which way. Karma will take care of the greedy (voice #1: “oh really you think?” voice #2: “like I said – we don’t really care if Jagr is getting paid 1 gazillion dollars a second if he’s making it … so long as he’s on the Ice”)

    In the meanwhile, we’ll just be chilling with Womens hockey, which, as we have discovered, rocks.

    So yay hooray for womens hockey – in some ways this strike is a GOOD THING.

  • by Kelly Martel - December 12, 2004, 4:30 pm

    Sure women right now may be conditioned as a ‘weaker’ sex (in general), physically, in North America but that’s not how it is all over the world. There are examples of existing tribes in Africa (and I believe South America), where the women are the aggrssive, stronger sex, and the men play a role similar to what the stereotype of women in North America is. When these women were told that in most of the world, men are the ‘stronger’ of the two, they laughed as if that was a joke. I’m sure it would take quite a few generations for women to be conditioned as stronger, but it is possible – after all, we already know they can take pain better then men, right?

    So yes, stating that women could never play up to the standards of men is sexist…

  • by Stephen Talko - December 13, 2004, 1:43 am

    It must be tough getting a consistant fan base for women’s hockey when home games are played in a different rink each time. Even though I am a born and bred Montrealer I would have a great deal of trouble finding some of these rinks in my own city. It would be extremely useful to have a mapquest button, bus route info and parking availability on their web site. It is not helpful when there are no pictures or hometown info for the star players as part of their profiles. There are lots of statistics on teams and players but no action pictures to generate real interest. It all seems so plain to me. It is a far cry from what you can find on an NHL Web Site. In any case the women’s league is all but forgotten in the main sports pages of the local dailies. I personally cannot name a single player on any team! It is important for girls to have role models so that they can participate more in team sports and develop skills important to their future careers.

  • by Charles Langlois - December 14, 2004, 4:27 pm

    It is a shame that it has taken a lock-out for us to realize that there are a great many alternatives to the NHL. I for one can no longer say I miss professional hockey. There are great games going on at many local arenas, from womens pro hockey to the 5 year olds just starting out. When was the last time you tried the experience? There is nothing more beautiful than to watch these uncorrupted athletes going up and down the ice after the puck with the only thought in their minds is to……..get to the puck. No thoughts of contracts, stick swinging altercations or scoring incentives, just the puck. We should that advantage of what these people have to offer us, REAL Hockey the way it was meant to be played.

    Professional hockey has a disease similar to alcoolism, and we as fans have to step back and let the sport admit to itself and to us the fans that it has a disease. Only then can it start to recover and we can go back and encourage that recovery. In the meantime go out and enjoy an hour of amateur hockey be it womens, mens or kids of all ages. You will be rewarded with pure hockey and the players will be rewarded by your presence.

  • by Sylvain Provost - December 16, 2004, 9:52 am

    I have to agree with another reader (Marc Charette) who says that women in sports only get coverage if they wear skimpy clothes. Let’s face it : the less clothes female athletes wear, the more media coverage they get ! It’s as simple as that.
    What are the only sports that get their share of media coverage on a regular basis? Tennis (because of Anna Kournikova who wears a short skirt but stil can’t hit the ball), figure skating (if you can call that a sport. It’s more like social dancing on ice) and beach volley ball (with the Brasilian team always trying to wear non-regulatory bikinis). And let’s not forget aerobics during lunchtime on RDS, a favorite in your local Cage Aux Sports where guys gather around a well deserved lunch and beer.
    Why is it so? Simply because, on the average, men determine the economics of sports since most sports consumers are men, and most media decision makers are men.
    Of course, in most sports, male athletes will show better performances. But still, female athletes can pull more than their own weight. Have you watched the Canadian female hockey team during the last Olympics ? Come on, this was way better than the washed up hockey teams they serve us because of the hockey lock-out. Do you also remember when we didn’t have any professional soccer team a few years back ? The Impact didn’t play but the Dynamites of Laval, a female soccer team, was pretty popular.
    This just goes to show you that, with a good marketing strategy, female sports can get their fair share of the sports market.

  • by Steve Landry - January 10, 2005, 3:57 pm

    COST OF EQUIPMENT FOR A WOMEN’S HOCKEY TEAM: $25,000
    COST OF PAYING A WOMEN’S HOCKEY TEAM FOR A YEAR: $30,000
    COST OF ADMISSION ON AVERAGE TO GO SEE A WOMEN’S HOCKEY GAME: $10.00
    MAKING OUT WITH A HOT AND SWEATY FEMALE HOCKEY PLAYER THAT JUST WON THE TOURNAMENT MVP AWARD: PRICELESS

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