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Hockey Canada funding announcement took focus off women’s game just when players deserved it most

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On Sunday night, the Canadian women’s hockey team faced off against their most formidable rivals — Team USA — in the championship final of the womens’ world hockey championship in Brampton, Ont.

Slated as the ones to beat and despite scoring first, the Canadians were ultimately defeated, 6-3. The gold-medal game did not go into overtime like their previous enthralling and exhausting match-up that ended in nine rounds, yes, nine rounds, of a shootout. Canada’s Jamie Lee Rattray came away from that one as the heroine. That particular game was one of the most intense I have ever witnessed and what we have come to expect from what I consider the greatest rivalry in sports.

WATCH | How hate fuelled Canada’s win at the 2002 Olympics:

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From great goals and controversial calls, to flag-stomping folklore, Canada-U.S. rivalry was cemented in Salt Lake City

But Sunday’s showdown did not end in an exhilarating manner — not for Canada anyway. Unable to hold a lead, the Canadians said they were in “disbelief” at the loss.

USA captain Hilary Knight scored a hat trick and said that although beating Canada is tough and beating Canada in Canada is tougher, the victory felt sweeter because of it.

WATCH | Knight’s hat trick leads U.S. past Canada for gold:

Hilary Knight hat trick leads United States to world championship title over Canada

Hilary Knight’s three goals included the winner as the Americans captured their 10th women’s world hockey championships gold medal with a 6-3 win over Canada Sunday night.

Looking at the recent accomplishments of the Canadian team and taking into consideration that the U.S. hasn’t won a major tournament since 2019, it was expected that Canada would win. Thousands of fans cheered for the team and dozens of little girls made posters with the names of the players on them. Certainly, this was a perfect setting for winning another world title.

But somehow, the mood at the game seemed a bit off. Just two hours before puck drop a letter from Minister of Sport Pascale St-Onge to Hockey Canada board chair Hugh Fraser was released. It stated that the federal government would be reinstating Hockey Canada’s funding. It had been frozen for 10 months after a scandal was revealed involving funds being used to pay for sexual abuse claims, silencing survivors and protecting players from the mens’ under-20 national team in 2018. All of this while the organization upheld what has been revealed to be a toxic culture.

The timing of the announcement struck me as a bit bizarre, shifting the headlines to Hockey Canada and the government instead of a match-up that we knew would be intense and physical. I wondered what the effect might be on the players. Were they thinking about this instead of the game? Could this announcement not be made on Monday to give the women their proper limelight?

A source close to the Hockey Canada board told me that the timing came from the government. But was Hockey Canada trying to use a feel-good moment in women’s hockey to redeem itself? This is not the first time women’s sports have been used to shield federations from wider criticisms. See: soccer in Canada.

When will women’s hockey get the unqualified support it requires? The women’s hockey program is one that was affected by the funding freeze. At the time, Team Canada’s Blayre Turnbull said, “We consider ourselves professional athletes without the professional paycheque.”

It is unimaginable that hockey players of that standard are put in a position where they can’t progress financially despite the wins, the reputation and the drive.

In her book, Offside, former hockey player and builder Rhonda Leeman Taylor wrote that women have been facing obstacles and facing public backlash since the birth of the game. And not being able to get attention on airwaves is a problem that women hockey players encountered in earlier days as well.

Men’s hockey has grown to become a part of the fabric of Canadian culture. Why does this fabric exclude essential threads and pieces of women hockey and the players’ right to advance and grow?

WATCH | Professional women’s hockey struggles to take hold:

Professional women’s hockey struggles to take hold

Grassroots girls hockey has grown exponentially in recent years but professional women’s hockey has struggled to take hold. Experts say there is potential for a league to thrive if it is approached the right way.

I can’t help but feel that the women’s game is not given the grace or the space for growing and building the way it needs to. Whether over-amplified and tiresome discussions about a single league or PHF versus PWHPA, it seems as if those with the strongest opinions on that know the women’s hockey landscape and its history the least.

Women’s hockey players are not a monolith and it’s OK for them to have different goals — pun intended. That the CAA Arena was packed with fans is an indication of what we can expect. We know the product is always amazing even when Canada wins silver.

There is a lot to look forward to and a lot to be built. But when the foundations are properly laid we will see the emergence of girls and women’s hockey that won’t be disrupted or destabilized. Creating space for girls and women in hockey will only make the cultural bond with the sport stronger for hockey in Canada. Inclusion has never hurt sport and supporting women’s sport has only ever made society better. 

It’s time to focus on that. 

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