OTTAWA – Although she was only 16 years old when she played for Switzerland at the 1990 Women’s World Championships in Ottawa, Monika Leuenberger had already been skating and playing hockey for many years.
“My dad was an ice hockey referee in the highest men's league in Switzerland, so we got involved from him. It started when I was watching my older brother play. One day his coach came over and asked me to bring my skates to the next practise. It was 1980. I was 7 years old and for sure the only girl who was playing with boys in Zurich!”
As with all countries, the development of the women’s game has been huge in recent times. Consider Leuenberger’s childhood as a starting point for Swiss hockey. “In 1980, there was only one women's team in Switzerland, 20 players. That was it. Twenty players. I don't know how they were organized, but it was a novelty for boys’ teams – and their parents! – when they saw that I was skilled enough to play games. It was entirely unusual. And because my dad had a referee’s background he was always able to get a dressing room for me.”
Her rise through the ranks started more seriously at age 13, when she was no longer allowed to play with boys. “Rules said that at age 13, girls had to play in girls’ leagues, so I had to switch and play against much older players who were often 25 or 30 years old. This was 1986, and now there were eleven women’s teams and 210 registered players. But players didn’t have much skill as far as skating and stickhandling because most started late in life. As well, ice time was minimal. We skated maybe twice a week and usually late at night. But in 1986 we did have our first national championship for women.”
It was out of this season that the national association was able to select players to travel to Toronto for the first unofficial championship in 1987, some of whom were teammates of Leuenberger. In 1988, she received her first tryout, and there were now 15 teams in the country.
Still, because the women’s game was small, it was easy for coaches and players to unite for 1990 in Ottawa by which time there were 380 registered skaters. “Coaches and managers from the Swiss national team were closely involved in the national championships with the different club teams,” Leuenberger explained, “so more or less everyone knew each other. No one who could skate stayed undetected. As well, the national team met every second month for a training camp on the weekends during the 1989-90 season to prepare for the world championship.”
Once the team for Ottawa had been selected, it prepared by playing exhibition games against Swiss boys’ teams, usually 15-year-olds. “We usually lost,” Leuenberger noted. Once in Canada, the team trained in Peterborough, Ontario, and played more exhibition games before driving to Ottawa.
“It was the first time in my life I was in Canada, and I was fascinated by how common it was for girls to play hockey,” she noted.
Once the tournament got under way, the Swiss played at a respectable level. Although they didn’t qualify for the playoffs, they beat Japan and Norway in the placement rounds to finish fifth. More important, Leuenberger was part of an event that changed the women’s game forever.
“Never, ever I could imagine how successful women’s hockey was going to become,” she enthused. "I loved the game and hoped I could play for a couple of years. Then I got the chance to meet other female hockey players at the Women’s Worlds! And if someone had told me in 1990 that I’d have the chance to play at the Olympics, I would have said they were crazy! It was impossible to predict that kind of development back then.”
A key to that development was when foreign players came to Switzerland after the 1990 tournament. “Judy Diduck from Team Canada was already known in Switzerland,” Leuenberger explained. “That made it easier to get in touch with other players, and once we socialized that made it possible for Swiss players to come to Canada as well. During future years there were several players from abroad – United States, Canada, Finland, Sweden, Germany – who played in Switzerland thanks to the connections individual players made at the world championships.”
Because women don’t have a pro league and salaries, they must play in their off hours and work during the day. In Leuenberger’s case, she was able to use hockey to help with her off-ice career and development. “When I was 16, I did an apprenticeship as a carpenter and worked in that field for several years. Later, I went back and finished high school and started university courses when I was 30.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that she retired from the national team, but she remained an assistant coach while also coaching a junior team for two years. In the daytime, she completed her degree in human movement sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, graduating in October 2011. Three months later, she was offered a job at a regional hospital which more or less prevented her from continuing as coach.
“Not long ago I got a phone call asking me if I would be interested in coaching a national U13 girls team in Switzerland,” she revealed. “Perhaps there is something new coming in my life. I don’t know!”
One thing is certain. The hockey world for women in Switzerland today is remarkably different from the one she encountered in 1980 as a seven-year-old. “The support and registration today are amazing,” she enthused. “It’s now considered normal for a girl to want to play hockey. And it’s not just local interest – it’s an Olympic sport! The games between club teams are much more competitive now, and even if you start playing at age seven, it might be too late.”
For her teammates in 1990, though, the story is generally one in which players had their time and have moved on. “Most of the players from that time stopped playing five or ten years later and nearly all turned away from hockey,” she explained. “Most of us had to struggle hard during our careers – training, organizing, equipment – things that men get for free. It was easing a burden to leave.”
But what they did in 1990 helped pave the way for today’s generation, one which hopefully will have the chance to stay in the game and have opportunities to grow the game further.