For those of us who follow professional women's hockey, the last week has been perfectly indicative of the one-step-forward, three-leaps-back world in which the greatest female players on ice exist.
First came word the International Ice Hockey Federation's Hall of Fame plans to induct its first female member sometime in 2008. Given that the 10th women's world hockey championship will be held next month in Winnipeg and that women have played hockey in three Olympic Games since debuting in 1998, the announcement is long past due.
The IIHF's decision also should shame the Hockey Hall of Fame Â– long derelict in its duty to honor those who have helped grow the game, regardless of their gender Â– into following suit.
Unfortunately, the news wasn't all positive for the women's game. Far from it.
Start with the National Women's League (NWHL), which has fallen into disrepair this season after its former president (who, by the way, never returned so much as one of my phone calls) stepped down last summer to concentrate on her duties as mayor of a suburban Ontario city.
The NWHL's website lists no games whatsoever after Feb. 25. That means, unless you count the Esso Canada National Championship Â– a hybrid tournament of pros and amateurs recently won by the Calgary Oval X-Treme of the Western Women's League (WWHL) Â– the NWHL won't crown a champion this year for the first time since it was founded in 1999. (The Oval X-Treme, who played in the Esso Nationals as Team Alberta, also won the WWHL's championship this season.)
If you're asking yourself, Â“Hey, weren't the two former rival leagues supposed to merge this year and have the Eastern Champion face the best of the West to decide the winner of the inaugural Clarkson Cup?Â” You're not alone.
And if you haven't heard, you'll be disappointed to know the merger hasn't happened and the Clarkson Cup won't be handed out until 2008.
Even then, I wouldn't hold my breath.
"I feel sorry for the players,Â” WWHL president Bill Espey told the Globe and Mail. Â“They're not getting the guidance they need. We're sitting in a wait-and-see situation, although there should be an announcement shortly.Â”
There should be an announcement shortly. You hear that a lot in women's hockey. You hear the words Â“hopefullyÂ” and Â“disappointingÂ” quite often, too. And if the situation is frustrating to an outsider looking to provide the women's game with some publicity, imagine how it must feel to be one of the athletes committing her time and talents to the sport while receiving virtually no financial compensation in return.
It must make them want to scream. Yet there they are every year, smiles on their faces, more than willing to publicize their passion. And it is a testament to the spirits of the women involved that they continue to sacrifice, both professionally and personally, in spite of the sport's lack of promotion and progress.
The most common excuse for the stagnant development of the women's pro game is there's no money to be made from it. But how can that be, when interest and enrollment in the women's amateur hockey scene has never been better? And why aren't corporations that can't align themselves fast enough with the Canadian National Women's Team doing more to step up and help out in non-Olympic years?
Beats the hell out of me. I just know that when I followed the NWHL's Beatrice Aeros (now the Mississauga Aeros) during the NHL lockout, I saw more exciting hockey games than I have in all my years covering the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Perhaps that's more of a comment on the Leafs than it is the quality of women's hockey, but I doubt it.
Knowing what I've come to know about female hockey players only makes me admire them more. And it absolutely infuriates me to see the mainstream media and public unwilling or unable to embrace their talents the same way they've done for male players.
We should be holding up the Hayley Wickenheisers, Cammi Granatos, Angela Ruggieros and Jennifer Botterills of the world as the real heroes of hockey, the ones truly playing the game for all the right reasons. And our continued inability to celebrate their skills is an abysmal reflection of our out-of-whack societal priorities and callous disregard for what's different in sports, not of the showmanship or marketability of a group of women who will go down in history as pioneers plowing their way through tough terrain.
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