Rider’s legacy on display
Rider’s legacy on display
OWHA president vital to the game's evolution
No woman has exerted a greater force or had a greater influence on the development of women’s hockey than Rider. Whereas most people think of 1990 as a starting point for the game, the truth is that 1990 was an end point.
The truth is that without Fran Rider’s remarkable determination, women’s hockey would likely not exist in its current form. Hyperbole? You decide.
Rider was a typical girl in a typical city, but while other girls went to school, got jobs or got married, Rider stayed in the game. Her life, her story, is the history—or, the “herstory” of women’s hockey itself.
The timeline begins in 1967.
“I was a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, but women and girls didn’t play hockey,” Rider began. “Then, in 1967, I saw a notice in the Toronto Telegram that there was a tournament starting up called the Brampton Canadettes. It was girls’ hockey. I played in that first tournament that year. It was full body-checking. I was 16, and we had a seven-year-old and a 44-year-old on our team.”
That was the hook for Rider. She was thrilled by the experience and continued to play as much as possible. “Ice time was very limited for girls. You had one hour, and very few practices. You basically learned how to play by playing games. There were a lot of good players at that time. I didn’t get a lot of ice time, but the other players we so encouraging. Eventually I played at the top level and played with and against Angela James, France St. Louis, Danielle Goyette. They were quite young and I was quite old.”Continue reading
One word you hear at every IIHF event is “volunteer.” Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, will tell anyone any time that without volunteers, Hockey Canada wouldn’t exist. Rider is a perfect example.
“The first year I started playing I also started volunteering in the Brampton tournament. I had a passion for hockey; I absolutely loved it. We had a backyard rink, so I’d skate there year after year. I loved it and wanted to create more opportunities so every girl and woman could play. I started by volunteering and getting involved in any way possible. At that time there were only tournaments, not leagues. Preston, Brampton, Picton all had tournaments. Teams from across Ontario and into the United States played. Most of the players didn’t have a league to play in, but over time leagues were established and I always volunteered.”
The timeline continues—1975
Although still in her early twenties, Rider was as familiar a name and face in women’s hockey as any. The key to everything we know and love about the game today can be traced to the establishment of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association in 1975.
“The OWHA is the only organization in the world dedicated solely to the growth and development of female hockey,” Rider says with pride of the OWHA’s unchanged mandate, then til now.
“I was part of the meetings to establish the OWHA, but the core group was Maurice and Shirley Landry, Dave McMaster, and Bev Mallory. Cookie Cartwright, a lawyer in Kingston, was instrumental in developing the first operational documents. They were huge in establishing the OWHA.”
Rider has particularly kind words for the late Dave McMaster, a champion of women’s hockey in those early days in the 1970s who became the head coach of the 1990 team.
“Dave was a special person,” she enthused. “He was a coach, and often before a game he’d be in the lobby talking to an opponent, telling them what to do to shoot or skate better. He was amazing. He just wanted to help players improve.”
Rider’s rise to the top of the OWHA was as organic as it was swift. She was enthusiastic, ambitious for the organization, and relentless. “No” and “impossible” were not words in her vocabulary.
“I joined several OWHA committees when it was formed in 1975. I never really had any aspirations for roles or titles; I just wanted to be part of a team to help make the game better. The biggest thing I learned was that for whatever area you’re working in, find the best people in that area to work with.”
Perhaps the best thing about the OWHA was that it could operate however it wanted. No one cared about women’s hockey, so there were no rules by which to abide.
“The key thing was flexibility,” Rider admitted. “The rulebook wasn’t as important as finding ways to get teams to play. For instance, residency didn’t matter. Age didn’t matter. Roy Morris in Brampton started the first house league there, and he matched age and skill by helmet colour. It worked. And then as you got more players, you could have teams at a reasonable level. Flexibility was the key.”
Soon enough Rider was president of the OWHA, and from there she helped build the first national championship in 1982.
“When I was younger everyone said you couldn’t play, you shouldn’t play. We were laughed at for even trying to play,” Rider recalled. “But the players just wanted to enjoy hockey. Everyone recognized the game would be stronger if we made it stronger in Ontario and Canada and the world. I got involved with the Brampton Canadettes and chaired the tournament for ten years, 1977-87. I was president of the OWHA at that time.”
But the Brampton event was small potatoes for what was ahead. If Rider and women’s hockey wanted to grow, it had to become a national sport, and it had to develop into something more than just a regional tournament once a year.
“The late Frank Champion-Demers was a driving force in organizing the first national championship,” Rider continued. “That event was spear-headed by the OWHA, and that led to sponsorship with Shopper’s Drug Mart. The OWHA hosted the first two national championships in Brantford. The nationals brought women’s hockey into the Hockey Canada network, so there was a team from every province, and the female council was formed in 1982. That got women’s hockey on the map in Canada.”
Of course, when one is trying to grow a sport, bigger is better and more is more. With a national championship now an established part of the women’s hockey calendar, Rider started to push for the ultimate challenge—a tournament with teams from around the world. The expansion of women’s hockey to Europe started in 1985.
“In 1985, we learned there were teams in Holland and West Germany,” Rider said. “They came to Brampton that year, so we had an international tournament. There were teams from Quebec, Ontario, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and then Holland and West Germany. A gentleman by the name of Wolfgang Sorge came over with the West German team. He worked in Division III hockey in West Germany, and he worked closely with Dr. Gunther Sabetzki. They were interested in what was going on with women’s hockey in Canada, and he was pleased with what he saw.”
The success of the 1985 Canadettes tournament was small but encouraging. Rider had managed to put the finances together to host a women’s hockey tournament with teams from four countries. No outside help, no support beyond her own energy and the determination of the OWHA and friends.
That, though, inspired her to think globally, and globally meant a world championship of some sort. Rider includes rather than excludes, and while her stories clearly place at the centre of the growth and development, she is forever praising the role of those around her in how the game evolved.
“There were two key people—Dick Larzelere in Michigan and Carl Gray in Massachusetts—who we worked with to drive the U.S. involvement,” she continued. “We at the OWHA drove the Canadian involvement, and we continued to push the international countries. Rolf and Andrea Schweitzer in Switzerland were very keen and Bergitta Crawford out of Sweden was keen.”
“As we started to establish contacts in Sweden and elsewhere, we learned that there were really good players in other countries,” Rider described. “We started thinking about doing a world championship, but as we were lobbying for that, we ran into quite a few walls. What we were able to do was get a “world tournament.” We got approval for that from Hockey Canada.”
That might sound like semantics, but anything “world” was better than anything else not world.
“We managed to get six countries to compete in the world tournament, and another five sent delegates,” Rider boasted. “We scheduled it close to the Brampton Canadettes tournament because we felt that if it fell through then they’d still have a meaningful competition. We brought in Hazel McCallion as the honourary chairperson. That laid the groundwork for today.”
“That was April 1987,” Rider continued, extending the timeline and success and development of the game to ever greater heights of success. “In December, the Swiss hosted the Ochsner Cup. A lot of the same countries went to play in that tournament. It was an invitational event, and Czechoslovakia was there. Some of the meetings we had held in Canada and carried on in Switzerland were about getting women’s hockey in the Olympics. One of the most enthusiastic countries was Czechoslovakia. To us, that was a huge victory. They were a powerful nation in hockey.”
The first and unofficial world championship for women took place in Toronto and was an unqualified success. But the word success cannot be quantified in attendance figures or gate receipts or TV ratings, all of which were minimal or close enough to zero to be ignored.
“Success was that we had meetings with eleven countries about women’s hockey,” Rider explained. “We learned that our challenges and successes were very similar. We determined that those countries would go back and do their best to grow the game. That was an important commitment. And each of those countries was connected to others, so that increased our network for women’s hockey that was going to push the game forward.”
But those meetings were spurred on by the successes of the games themselves.
“We pitted Canada and the U.S. against each other in the first game,” Rider continued. “National and international media covered that game. It was a one-goal game. Canada won. The stands were full. One of the players, Lina Baun Danielsen, was the news anchor for TV 2 in Denmark, so she attracted a lot of press. The IIHF and Hockey Canada were watching, and it blossomed from there. Dr. Sabetzki was keen and said he wanted to see women’s hockey in the Olympics in his lifetime. Murray Costello from Hockey Canada became a supporter. The players had a chance to sell themselves. The OWHA didn’t have to do anything.”
Because of 1987, because the players were enthusiastic and now Hockey Canada, Europe, and the IIHF had seen the games in 1987, women’s hockey was on a roll. A quiet, unassuming, under-the-radar roll, but a roll all the same.
“We continued to lobby to host a true World Championship,” Rider went on, “and in 1989, West Germany hosted the European Championship in Dusseldorf and Rattingen. I was invited as a guest of the IIHF and the West German Federation, and at that event they brought in a top marketing agency. Dr. Sabetzki was there. The stands were full. That tournament became the qualifier for the 1990 World Championship in Ottawa.”
Timeline—1990 and beyond
By this time, it was a given women’s hockey would be successful. It was just a matter of how successful and when, not if. The first official tournament cemented the sport in the eyes of everyone important in the decision-making process—Hockey Canada, the IIHF, the IOC. “After that, everyone believed,” Rider summarized.
“I didn’t see problems,” Rider said with mantra-like belief. “I saw opportunities. I knew what had to happen, and I wanted to find a way to make it happen. I didn’t care about finances or people saying things are impossible. I probably believed more than most people that we needed a world championship—it just needed to be. It just didn’t make sense that “no” should be there. I worked with other people who believed. I wanted to make them believe that this just has to be.”
Be and belief is what drove Rider and the tournament to where it is today.
“What happened in women’s hockey is that we had a goal. It didn’t have borders. It didn’t have boundaries. We had a goal of getting women’s hockey into the Olympics, which was an impossible dream. We put everything else aside. We achieved that impossible dream. People say women’s hockey is fragile now? This is nothing compared to where it used to be.”
“One of the problems we faced all along,” Rider explained, “was that you need to broaden the base and get the grassroots going before you can high performance. You couldn’t sever the two. Little girls around the world needed role models. They needed to be on television, in the newspaper. They need to see and feel that if she can do that, I can do that. Once women’s hockey was on the world stage, and then finally accepted into the Olympics, it was an acceptable sport to do.
“As well, universities started to develop women’s teams. Then, young girls who gained self-esteem and self-respect through hockey carried forward and combined their education with hockey. They went on to become incredible role models as lawyers, doctors, professionals. Now, it’s the players themselves who have the credibility, so they’re the spokespeople.”
IIHF finances limited the women’s worlds to every two years at first, but that might have been a blessing in disguise as it allowed the game to develop slowly. Two years later, the game exploded.
“In 1992, in Finland, Gilbert Felli and Pirjo Hagman were sent by the IOC to Finland to see if this sport should be in the Olympics,” Rider carried on. “The bronze-medal game went to a shootout, Finland beat Sweden. It was one of the best hockey games I’ve ever seen, to this day. That game did a lot to seal our place in the Olympics.”
Six years later, Canada and the United States played for gold, the Americans winning that historic gold-medal game in Nagano. Women’s hockey had reached its zenith, but it was a trip that began in 1967 when an 11-year-old named Fran saw a story in the Telegram about a tournament called the Canadettes (which, by the way, is now in its 47th year).
Rider was in the room for pretty much everything since 1975 when the OWHA was established, and the fruits of her efforts are a sport that is strong and getting stronger every day.
“Every year and everything I’ve ever done it’s been with a team,” she concluded. “I’ve met so many wonderful people with so many skills in every area. In the beginning, we didn’t have the credibility, but we latched on to people who did. And now, women’s hockey is here to stay.”
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