Women’s Para hockey players hope World Challenge will grow the game

The United States won the first women's Para Hockey Challenge, defeating Canada 5-1 in the gold medal game. (Photo courtesy: USA Hockey vis Twitter)

Regardless of the final outcome, Canada’s Para women’s hockey players scored a victory before they even took to the ice this weekend in Green Bay, Wisc.

The women know they’re making history at the inaugural Para Ice Hockey Women’s World Challenge.

“It’s amazing to see how many players are here and having four separate teams like this is amazing to see the growth in the sport already. I can’t wait to see it continue to grow,” said Canadian goaltender Tracey Arnold, who played regular hockey as a kid before a car accident that killed her father and left her partially paralyzed at the age of 12.

The United States won gold at the four-team World Challenge with a 5-1 win over Canada in Sunday’s final. The tournament also featured Britain and a Team World comprised of athletes from different countries.

The women are hoping the tournament, hosted by World Para Ice Hockey, is a stepping stone to inclusion in the Paralympics, where men’s Para hockey has been a part of the program since 1994. Women comprised just 24 per cent of the some-560 athletes at the Beijing Paralympics this past winter. The lack of Para women’s hockey was the biggest reason for the gender gap.

Canadian men’s Para hockey star Billy Bridges said the inclusion of women is long overdue.

“It’s time, holy cow,” he said during the Paralympics. “I know that hundreds, or thousands of women are playing across the world. I know that if they make a women’s tournament at the Paralympic Games, teams will show up. I know that countries like China, they’re not going to turn down an opportunity to win the medal. And not make a team. There’s so many chicken-and-the-egg arguments and I’m sick of it.”

Arnold, a 44-year-old mom and former world-class arm wrestler, took up Para hockey about seven years ago in Saskatoon, but has often been the lone woman playing on “mixed” club teams.

While Canada’s men’s Para team operates under the Hockey Canada umbrella, the women’s program is self-funded. The players paid their way to a training camp last month in Calgary to prepare for the World Challenge tournament.

Bridges said being brought into the Hockey Canada fold made a huge difference for the men, who had to buy their own Canada jerseys off the rack at sporting good stores, and sometimes packed six players into a hotel room when travelling, because the team was self-funded when he joined it in 1998.

Arnold, who works for the Saskatchewan Health Authority, said the future success of the women’s game comes down to funding, awareness and providing equal opportunities.

“And it’s also having allies to help support the women’s programs,” she added, pointing out that countries with men’s teams should support a women’s program as well.

After dropping a 5-0 decision to the U.S. in their tournament opener on Friday, the Canadians crushed Britain and Team World by lopsided scores of 12-0 on Saturday.

Edmonton’s Alanna Mah said she just cherished the rare chance to compete against teams other than the U.S.

“We’ve come a long way from where we began,” said Mah, who lost partial use of her legs when she was six months old due to cancer on her spinal cord. “But it’s still just trying to grow the game in different countries, and actually getting women exposed to the sport, that it exists. A lot of women just either don’t know, or a country won’t have enough to form a team. 

“And the support and the awareness and the funding also hasn’t been great, but it’s definitely picked up … which is why we’re able to have events like this, and grow the game internationally and show women the game exists for them.”

The tournament also features an all-women’s officiating crew at a World Para Ice Hockey event for the first time.

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