In 1990, Team Canada wore pink sweaters. All eight teams were coached by men. On-ice officials were men, and attendance wasn’t even recorded at the mostly small venues.
On the other hand, TSN broadcast the gold-medal game, a landmark event. Four players from the event went on to be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame, and two into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Welcome to the contradiction that was the historic and first ever IIHF Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship, held in Ottawa some 23 years ago. And in three weeks, the women’s game – now so different and advanced the 1990 version is barely recognizable – returns to the site of that inaugural event where organizers expect to obliterate all attendance records.
“Sales are going really well,” explained Cyril Leeder, president of Senators Sports & Entertainment and vice-chair of the Women’s World Championship committee (with Fran Ryder). “We’ll have over 200,000 attendees by the time the event is over. Previously Winnipeg had the record, but we’ll exceed that total by 70,000. The interest has really picked up.”
Indeed, the upcoming tournament is going to be the largest event in the history of women’s hockey, an event that began with a bidding process and ended with a collaboration of unprecedented enthusiasm and size.
Leeder expanded: “There were two groups interested in hosting – ourselves, and the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association. We contacted the OWHA and formed a partnership, so that the Senators and the OWHA would co-host this year in Ottawa. This was a key factor. As well, the big event for the OWHA every year is the girls’ provincial hockey championships with nearly 500 teams descending on Toronto every April. We were able to move that event to Ottawa to coincide with the World Women’s, so we’ll have thousands of players taking up every hotel room in the city. It’s going to be a great atmosphere. Our pitch was to stage the largest celebration of women’s hockey ever taken place. It’s really an OWHA-Senators event.”
The preparations began pretty much immediately after Hockey Canada considered the bids in April 2011, and the combination of this remarkable collaboration as well as Ottawa’s successful hosting of the U20 tournament in 2009 was more than enough to convince Hockey Canada that Canada’s capital city was the place to be in 2013.
In 1990, games were played in small community arenas, with the showcase Canada-United States final at the Civic Centre, home to the 67’s of the OHL. This time, Group A games (Canada, Finland, Switzerland, United States) will take place at the Senators’ home, the 20,000-seat Scotiabank Place. Group B games will be played at the smaller Sportsplex, also in Nepean.
“The Civic Centre is under renovation for the next two years and is closed, but the Sportsplex is a good size for the pool B teams that will be in town with a capacity of about 2,000,” said Geoff Publow, who is working alongside Leeder and was a key member of the team’s successful 2009 U20 bid. “We’re focused on creating an exciting environment for those teams while they’re in Canada. And we have the large NHL size venue here at Scotiabank Place for Team Canada and USA and the pool A teams.”
“We already have more than 200 of the girls’ teams buy tickets for the double-header on Friday, April 5,” Leeder enthused of the anticipation for the United States-Switzerland and Canada-Finland games. “The OWHA has also been great, customizing their tournament schedule to the Women’s Worlds. They are starting a day earlier and have a day off on the 5th so the girls teams will all have a chance to watch Team Canada play at least once.”
The women’s event differs from the U20 in one key area – dates. “Because the schedule is so tight, there are four games going on most days,” Leeder explained. “Unlike the World Juniors, which happens during the Christmas holidays where people are more flexible with their schedule, this time the event is in April, so we focused on filling the 20,000 seats with the main ticket package, and we have a number of initiatives to get people into the Sportsplex games. But those games will be at noon and 4pm, so it’s a little difficult compared to the Canada pool which play at 3.30 and 7.30. We’ve had to get creative.”
The Senators’ interest in playing host is a microcosm of what Hockey Canada wants to create around the country – increased participation at the lowest levels of the game.
“Financial legacy and funding are two of the keys to Hockey Canada’s development strategy,” Publow said. “The event will generate a fund to focus on hockey development in excess of $700,000. Much of that will stay in Ontario and in Ottawa and focus on grassroots female hockey development programs, but it will also be spread across Hockey Canada’s 13 branches across the country. That’s a significant boost for the female game.”
“From the Senators’ perspective,” Leeder continued, “we get involved because we want to see grassroots hockey grow. If we can expose more girls and boys to seeing Team Canada play at the highest level, and experience the excitement of cheering their country on, it’s an important part of getting them on skates and developing hockey fans for life.”
Perhaps the only conflict of interest between hosting the Women’s Worlds and working for an NHL team was the aforementioned schedule. At first, the games were to take place during the final week of the NHL calendar, meaning the Senators would have to go on the road for the last week and a half of the season. In a league where playoff spots are often determined in the final days, that could have had a crucial result on the team’s NHL season. But with the labour dispute in the NHL until January and the delayed season, those worries have been removed.
“As it turned out, we still have two more weeks of NHL hockey after, so it’s actually worked out better. We still have six or seven home games after the Women’s Worlds,” Leeder noted.
And for fans in eastern Ontario, this year’s event isn’t likely to be the last. “We want to be active with Hockey Canada and bid on other events,” Publow confirmed. “They have a number of World Juniors they’re scheduled to host over the next seven or eight years, so we’ll be actively bidding on those.”