Q&A: Cassie Campbell-Pascall on the next step for women’s hockey

Cassie Campbell-Pascall signs autographs at an event in January 2010. (Canadian Press Images/Vancouver Sun)

Among the varied activities fans young and old will be able to participate in during this weekend’s Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada, an event that stands out is the Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest.

It’s a series of events where “girls 7-14 can participate in a combination of skills, training and motivation from local female hockey veterans and CWHL stars.”

And who knows? One of them just may end up becoming the next Cassie Campbell-Pascall.

An icon of the women’s game, Campbell-Pascall is a two-time Olympic gold medallist, current Sportsnet hockey analyst, and a Hockey Day ambassador who will be on the ground in Swift Current.

Sportsnet recently caught up with Campbell-Pascall to discuss the growth of the sport and why she thinks it will only get stronger as time passes.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

How much has the game changed from your playing days?

I think the girls have just started training at a younger age and they’re stronger, faster, they’ve had better coaching growing up, and now with the under-18 program and the under-22 program they’re learning at such a young age what it means to be an elite-level hockey player.

And having college scholarships and all those types of things to look forward to, whether it’s U Sport or the NCAA, there’s just so many more opportunities for young girls than when I was growing up, and they’re just more competitive at a young age.

They’ve got to become more of an elite hockey player at a young age, and there’s so much depth now and so many people pushing them behind the scenes that you probably won’t see so many girls on the national team having such long careers like my generation did because the depth is so much bigger and better, and that’s where our leagues become even more important because not everyone is going to be able to play for Team Canada or Team USA or whichever country they play for.

So it has just grown and I think at the grassroots, like when you go to small-town Canada now and they all have girls teams and so many girls playing and that wasn’t the case when I was growing up. So I just think it’s more acceptable now for girls to play hockey.

A couple weeks back during the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, the women’s game came into the spotlight with Kendall Coyne Schofield, in particular, stealing the show as an official participant in the Fastest Skater event. Did that event help build momentum for your game as far as visibility goes?

I think it’s for more than that weekend, but that weekend definitely got a lot of eyeballs on us.

I think what all those girls did, [Canadian national team members] Rebecca Johnston and Renata Fast were there as well and they participated in some of it, and they just performed under pressure and they showcased our game perfectly and they represented our game so well and definitely got people talking and understanding the women’s game, if they haven’t seen it before, is quite good.

So it was really fun. I never got a chance to watch it live, but I’ve watched it since and it’s definitely helped push women’s hockey forward.

What are some of these other factors that might be building momentum?

It’s the support of companies like Scotiabank who are huge NHL sponsors and also sponsor the CWHL, and they have been since 2007. And when large corporations are stepping up and helping the women’s game as much as the men’s game I think that says a lot.

And then the Olympic movement, Canada’s dominance has been well documented but I think the U.S. winning here this last Olympics has helped push women’s hockey forward south of the border and internationally the game’s getting better, too. We just had an under-18 world championship in Japan in January with so many great close scores between Russia and Sweden and Finland and Canada and the U.S., so the parity is getter better at the young ages.

Speaking of the international game, the CWHL, the league you used to be governor of, has made in-roads into China with a team over there. What impact has that had on the game?

In the individual case of the CWHL and China, China’s trying to build their team for the next Olympic cycle and having some of the top players over there internationally just to train with them, play with them, I think, is helping to push the Chinese federation in women’s hockey and try to help them grow so they can be competitive come Olympic time.

It’s been an interesting process, for sure. Obviously, there’s been some logistical things like the travel and those type of things for some of the players and some of the teams, but I think overall, in the long run, it’s going to help women’s hockey by having that support and having that support for China and also just having that interesting team with having China in the CWHL and having an international player there as they help bring financial support to the CWHL, so I think it has helped both sides.

So, does this only help the Chinese federation?

The main focus for China is to develop their team and make sure they’re competitive. But Noora Raty is the Finnish goaltender who plays for their team and they have some American players like Alex Carpenter so, overall, I think it’s giving international players a place to play and it’s giving Chinese players a chance to play with some of the best players in the world internationally.

So, obviously, the main focus is to help China build their federation and build women’s hockey and be ready for the next Olympic cycle, but at the same time, with the calibre of players that have shown up there, they’ve definitely helped the international game.

On the topic of the CWHL, after you stepped down as governor of the CWHL in March of last year you made some poignant comments about the need for the CWHL to merge with its rival NWHL and work with the NHL to create a ‘WNHL’ of sorts for the betterment of the game. What steps need to be taken to make something like this happen?

That’s up to the commissioners of those leagues and I think everybody out there knows what the next steps should be. That’s really all I’ll say on the matter.

OK, but if a ‘WNHL’ were to happen, how would you like to see it operate?

I think it would be similar to an Original Six. Probably with slightly different teams, but similar to an Original Six just to start small and have six teams mostly located in the East – maybe as far west as Chicago – just to make it start well geographically and have less expenses and then expand from there.

But I think we have enough talent to have six strong teams and six strong organizations and we already see the [Toronto Maple] Leafs and the [Montreal] Canadiens and the [Calgary] Flames and some other organizations that support the women’s game, so I think there’s a lot of interest from some of the NHL teams, so hopefully that’s the step I see where it’s like an Original Six play.

Why is it so important for the NHL to be involved in what could be the next step in the women’s game?

We’ve been part of the all-star experience before. Hilary Knight was there last year, and even when I played we used to have a Canada-U.S. game around the all-star festivities as well.

In an ideal world for me, we have a WNHL and that’s something that a lot of people that have been pushing for behind the scenes, and I think the NHL is doing a great job supporting women’s hockey and making sure the when and if they have a WNHL that it’s done properly, and it’s done with a good business plan. I’m hopeful that that’s maybe the next step.

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