A Brief History of Women’s Hockey

Everyone who knows hockey knows that the Stanley Cup was donated to the people of Canada by Lord Stanley of Preston in 1892 during his time as Governor General of Canada. But Stanley’s five-year term in Ottawa (1888-1893) had equally important ramifications for women’s hockey as well as men’s. 

When Stanley arrived to his Canadian residence, Rideau Hall, in 1888, he came with his wife and four children, three sons and a daughter, Lady Isobel. And while the men in the family quickly fell in love with hockey, so, too, did Isobel, who encouraged her father to build an outdoor rink in the gardens of Rideau Hall during the winter months. Indeed, in 1890, Isobel was quite possibly the first woman photographed playing the game, and she promoted the sport among women with the same fervour her father promoted amateur hockey for men.

On 11 February 1891, the first account of a women’s hockey game appeared in the Ottawa Citizen, and a year later similar notice was published in a newspaper in Barrie, Ontario. The first women’s club team was formed at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where the Love-me-Littles (so named because of the lack of support from men in the community) made their own history. The team wore bright yellow sweaters with a large red Q on the front and were led by the great Marion Fraser. After a few years, the team changed its name to Morning Glories, and thus began women’s hockey at the Canadian university level. 

In time, the game spread throughout universities in Quebec and Ontario, and the Maritimes, before moving west. In 1921, the University of Toronto won the first national championship, defeating McGill. While university hockey flourished, the women’s game reached a crescendo of sorts during the 1930s when the unstoppable Hilda Ranscombe and the Preston Rivulettes dominated the sport. Coming from Preston, Ontario (now Cambridge) the Rivs barnstormed across the country and won virtually every game they played. But with the onset of the war in 1939, their impact came to an immediate end, and after 1945 it took a long time for women to get going again. 
In the mid-1950s, the true challenges of girls and women came to the fore in Canada when Abby Hoffman, a nine-year-old girl, was not permitted to play on a boys’ team. She changed her name to “Ab” and pretended to be a boy, ending up on a team in Toronto. But when the league discovered Ab was a girl, they expelled her. Hoffman’s parents took their fight to the Ontario Supreme Court and won, marking the first, but not the last time, girls would have to fight for equality. 

In 1966, Brown University created first women’s hockey team in the U.S.. Called the Pembroke Pandas, they made history and paved the way for more American colleges to create teams in the early 1970s, although it was still many years before a national championship would be held. 

Without doubt, the most important event in the women’s game that connects the past to the present came in 1975 when Fran Rider established the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association. For the first time, there was a group dedicated entirely to girls and women and growing the sport and making it more accessible. The OWHA’s impact across the world in the last half century has been immeasurable, and it is that organization that brought the Women’s World Championship to Brampton, Ontario, in April 2023.

While the superstar lineage in Canada can be traced from Angela James to Hayley Wickenheiser to Marie-Philip Poulin, the first real star player was Edmonton’s Shirley Cameron. She established a team in her home town called the Chimos and led them to many national championships in the 1980s. It was she who wore the “C” for Canada at the first IIHF Women’s Worlds in Ottawa in 1990.

Because of the OWHA and Cameron’s success, a true national championship was created in Canada in 1982, unifying the game from coast to coast and giving women a single-minded purpose that had never previously existed. That same year, the Naisten SM-sarja was established in Finland, the first national league of a major hockey country in Europe. Two years later, Sweden introduced an unofficial national championship that quickly blossomed into greater popularity for the game and organized play.

All of these initiatives within various countries in North America and Europe finally came together in 1987 when Rider established the first truly international Women’s World Championships. Played in Toronto, it featured eight teams and proved an enormous success. Out of this came the IIHF European Women’s Championship, played in 1989 in Düsseldorf and Ratingen, Germany, with Finland as the first winner. A year later, the IIHF hosted the first Women’s Worlds, and it was onwards and upwards after that.
Susana Yuen is hosted up by her teammates after the Canadians defeated Team USA to win the 1990 IIHF Ice Hockey Women's World Championship in Ottawa.
photo: Frank Gunn / Hockey Canada
In 1992, Canada’s Manon Rheaume made history by playing a period of an NHL exhibition game for the Tampa Bay Lightning, and in 1997 the IIHF mandated that all on-ice officials at the Women’s Worlds should be women. That year was also the start of an IIHF commitment to an annual World Women’s in non-Olympic years, and a year later more history was made when the women played in Nagano, the first time women’s hockey was a medal sport at the Games.

Later that year, 1998, the NCAA introduced the Patty Kazmaier Award as an annual honour for the best player in women’s college hockey. Kazmaier had recently died of a rare blood disease, but the award further entrenched the game at the university level in the United States.

In Canada, the first pro league emerged in 1999. Called the National Women’s Hockey League, it was run by the OWHA and created a place for women of all ages to play at the highest level. The Beatrice Aeros won the inaugural championship played in Brampton at the same arena the 2023 Women’s Worlds were played. Players on that team included Cassie Campbell and Geraldine Heaney. The league changed names and configurations many times, incorporating American teams, and starting in 2009 the winner received the Clarkson Cup, donated to the league by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson in the same spirit Lord Stanley donated a trophy for men in 1892. The Montreal Stars were the inaugural winners.

A year later, the NCAA produced its first national championship competition, the University of Minnesota-Duluth beating St. Lawrence, 4-2, in the title game.

Throughout the 1990s and into the new century, teams from the Far East were competitive in IIHF play. In fact, one of the early stars from outside North America was Chinese goalie Hong Guo. Nicknamed the “China Wall,” she was tall and acrobatic and was key to her team’s success. The Chinese went to the bronze-medal game three times between 1994 and 1998, largely thanks to Guo, but fell short each time. 
The United States celebrate after becoming the first Olympic champions in women’s ice hockey in Nagano 1998.
photo: IIHF Archive
Since 2004, the IIHF Hockey Development Camp and later also the IIHF Women’s High-Performance Camp has been a success, giving teenage girls from many countries as well as coaches and staff a chance to learn skills and develop a passion for the game. The mid-2000s also provided two dramatic moments in international hockey. In 2005, the Americans finally claimed their first WW gold, beating Canada 1-0 in a shootout, but the next year they were the ones on the losing end of an even greater upset. The Swedes knocked off the U.S. in the semi-finals of the Turin Olympics in a shootout, and Sweden went on to win silver, the first such medal for a European team.

The increase in popularity and participation of the women’s game everywhere was finally acknowledged by the IIHF in 2008 and the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto two years later when the first women were inducted into their respective Halls for career accomplishments. Cammi Granato, Geraldine Heaney, and Angela James were the first honourees, and many more have followed since, giving respect to the women where respect was due.

And then in the summer of 2010, at a post-Olympics international Summit in Toronto, the IIHF declared it would commit a further $2 million to developing women’s hockey. Part of this money was put towards the creation of a World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend and Global Girls’ Game, both of which have been held annually since 2011.
Young players work on and off the ice during a High-Performance Camp.
photo: Toni Saarinen
A major development in the United States threatened the playing of the 2017 Women’s Worlds in Plymouth. The Team USA players had long lamented their second-class treatment and vowed to boycott the tournament if they weren’t offered better contracts. It came down to the wire, but USA Hockey stepped up and delivered a package that was representative of the women’s place in the world of hockey, and they went on to win gold thanks to a Hilary Knight golden goal against Canada. 

Two years later, the Americans stepped up again. In Canada, the CWHL folded, leaving the players (mostly Canadian, several American, and a few European) without a meaningful league, so the U.S. players left their own loosely pro league, the NWHL, in solidarity, and created the PWHPA (Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association). Since then, that organization, led by Jayna Hefford, has worked tirelessly to create a fully pro league, and that day looms closer and closer.

The IIHF helped grow the game by enlarging the WW from eight teams to 10, and in 2019 more history was made when Finland advanced to the gold-medal game of the Women’s Worlds, losing to the U.S. but relegating Canada to bronze for the first time ever. Then, in 2022, the IIHF announced that a Women’s Worlds would be played every year, including Olympic years. That year also saw a breakthrough of another sort when Sarah Nurse was put on the cover of EA alongside the NHL’s Trevor Zegras, a milestone for both women and women of colour. 

In 2023, the IIHF held a Women’s Summit, bringing together over 100 delegates from 50 countries to discuss topics around women’s hockey. But earlier in the year saw another event dominate sports headlines around the world. At the Women’s U18 in Sweden, a 14-year-old Slovak girl named Nela Lopusanova stunned the world with her puck wizardry. She scored a lacrosse goal in one game, and another between the legs later in the tournament, and she was named the tournament MVP. That someone so young, and from a country that had had only modest success in women’s hockey, could burst onto the IIHF scene spoke to a future that promised to be bright, indeed.