At the Left Hand of the Divine

[Through the ‘90s I was doing the academic job tour: trying to get a permanent position and moving almost every year. I also played a lot of hockey, especially while I was living in Quebec. I ended up playing something like eighty games a year: bi-weekly faculty pick up games, women’s city league games, intramural men’s games, women’s varsity, and lots and lots of shinny.* At one point it was suggested that, since a new magazine on women’s hockey was looking for copy, I should write a piece on the history of women’s hockey at a small and very minor university in the Eastern Townships. So as I pored through all the archival material I could find, I found that women’s hockey actually had a long history in the province, and eventually produced this document. In the end, Women’s Hockey only published about 25 words, none of which looked like mine. Later that year (1997) I was hired at the UofS and, although I played hockey until 2006, it was gradually superceded by rowing and soccer. When I left the Townships for the prairies I deposited a copy of my article and my research with the University library where it languished until another researcher found it twenty years later. So here it is, rescued from archival oblivion and 3½” disk. The original essay is followed by the timeline of mentions in various campus publications.

*(My experiences with hockey up to and especially including that last year eventually formed the basis of “Being and Playing”.)]

At the Left Hand of the Divine
Women’s Hockey at Bishop’s University

“The Co-Eds defeated the Divinity men in an amusing game in the Minto rink, by the score of 5-4”.

Thus reads one of the earliest references to hockey played by the women of Bishop’s University, in the Mitre of Easter 1915. Two pages earlier, a brief description of the game bemoans the absence of one Mabel Wilson, “whose splendid end to end rushes are well known to all”. And so begins a tale of quiet but extraordinary persistence. At a university where hardly anyone even knows that a women’s team exists at all, hockey has been played by women in one form or another, not quite continuously, but for most of the last 82 years.

It may well be that women were playing hockey at the University (which only admitted women students, on a limited basis, in 1902) earlier than 1915. But it is difficult to be certain about much of this history, since throughout this century women’s hockey at Bishop’s has been an even better kept secret than professorial misconduct. It is clear, though, that the game was being played by women in the Eastern Townships area of Québec at the time, as evidenced by the challenge received the following year from the students of the Lennoxville Academy. Play continued at the University through to 1919, but the highlight of each season appears to have been the game against the Divinity students, who had formed a team in 1907. This became an annual event, played almost without fail, and almost always resulting in victory for the women, up until 1959.

Hockey, at this time a seven player game, seems to have been, although a passionately followed sport, a somewhat occasional one. Rinks were often outdoors, and as anyone familiar with the Townships can attest, winter weather is a variable sort of thing in these parts. Games were equally likely to be cancelled due to sudden blizzards or to near marine conditions. And, as no one presently familiar with women’s hockey will be surprised to hear, the women’s team was the more likely to lose half or more of its season due to uncooperative weather.

Despite the obstacles, and even in the periods when there was no regular women’s team, there was almost always the annual Co-Eds-Divines contest. Accounts of these games fall mainly into two categories: the dismissive and the downright hostile. A few accounts are more even-handed, and whatever else may have been going on (the game was treated as something of a carnival event) the “lady students” still had to put the puck in the net–which they appear to have done with a high degree of determination, not to mention frequency.

Which, all in all, is just as well. Women’s hockey has persisted at Bishop’s despite both a stunning lack of support and a quite notable lack of on-ice success. A comment in one of the Yearbooks of the mid-thirties pretty well sums up the situation, not just for that year’s team, but for much of our dogged history:

“A brief glance at the 1934-35 Women Students’ Hockey convinces one that we play for the pure love of the game rather than for any real hope of winning an outstanding victory”.

Nevertheless, the team that played from 1929 to 1940 participated in a significant expansion of women’s hockey, which was eventually shut down by WWII, and the curtailment of virtually all intercollegiate sport–even Bishop’s best-loved son, football. During this period, many of the area high schools had girl’s hockey teams, making up the Eastern Townships League in which Bishop’s sometimes participated. There was also some limited intervarsity competition with McGill (Royal Victoria College), an annual game against a high school team from Québec City (weather permitting), and regular play against the boys from Bishop’s College School. Some of the women who played at Bishop’s, then, had previously played high school hockey, though many had not played before (which would perhaps account for their frequent defeat by the high school teams). What is perhaps surprising to those who have studied the history of social attitudes to women in sports, is the high degree of acceptance of women in hockey apparent at this time–one player I spoke to could recall no opposition or criticism of their participation, or difficulty in getting ice-time, but remembered it as being viewed as a completely normal activity for young girls.

Having said that, however, it must also be admitted that Bishop’s University is a place given to the preservation of traditions long discarded by others. Founded as an Anglican institution in the mid-nineteenth century, students were until 1969 required to wear academic gowns on campus. And its officials have at times been more concerned with propriety than practicality. Thus the efforts of Clara Parsons, player and manager of the 1933 team, to persuade then Principal Dr. McGreer to allow the women’s team to wear shorts instead of skirts and purple bloomers, were met with the terse pronouncement that “young ladies at Bishop’s would not be allowed to wear shorts”. It should perhaps also be pointed out that, while the men’s team were fitted with all the usual padding, the women played without the benefit of any protective equipment at all. And yet, progress and common sense come even to the most reluctant of enclaves, and by the time varsity hockey returned to Bishop’s in 1972, women were indeed allowed to wear shorts. The rest of the equipment appeared soon afterwards.

Women’s hockey struggled along at Bishop’s in the form of the Women’s and “Bedesmen’s” match until 1959, and in the ’fifties, ’sixties, and early ’seventies as an intramural sport. Although interest in forming a varsity team was often expressed, this never seemed to get off the ground. In 1966 a pick up team did venture out to play a game against MacDonald College in Montreal, winning by a score of 3-2, although as The Campus newspaper notes, Mac practised twice a week and played against McGill and McMaster. A major problem for Bishop’s, then as now, is size. Smaller than many urban high schools, there just aren’t enough students to provide the reliable base of athletically inclined women necessary to build a team. The advent of the CEGEP system in Québec and the founding of Champlain College provided new resources, but also new limitations: the shorter college programme means a radical turnover of players every year. But, ironically, although women’s intramural hockey laboured under a severe player shortage for some years, it was actually this shortage that finally motivated the formation of a single university team that could go outside to play against the various local teams. A few tentative and fairly informal outings in the winter of 1972 led to the formation of the “Bishamplain Women’s Ice Hockey Team” in 1973, renamed the Polar Bears the following year, on account of the brutally cold arena in which they played.

Those first two years were an auspicious beginning, with a winning record in their first season, a 13 game unbeaten streak in their second, and with a highly organized and motivated coach in Tim Manning, who set up Invitational Tournaments that ran in 1975 and 1976 (with Loyola, Dawson, University of Toronto, John Abbott, and UNB as participants). It is a credit to Manning and those who supported the team that any of this happened at all, since there were those in the University who did not think that the school’s ice ought to be wasted on girls, and the tournaments proceeded with the sort of petty restrictions under which many of us still labour. With the disappearance of the Faculty of Divinity, the women no longer had the padres to pick apart, but for a few years the men’s basketball team stepped up to the challenge. This evolved into an annual contest against the faculty, but this tradition was finally put to sleep after a game in which one male faculty member found it difficult to maintain his perspective.

In 1977-78 the Montreal Women’s Hockey League started up, with Bishop’s, Concordia, John Abbott, and the Concordia Grads, and long time Bishop’s coach Al Ansell serving as commissioner. This became the Québec Women’s Interuniversity Hockey League the following season, with various teams (McGill, UQTR, Laval) being added or dropping out over the following years. The Polar Bears played in the League, in tournaments, and in numerous exhibition contests against collegiate and club team opponents from Ontario and the States. Success was not a constant companion, and the team’s best years were unquestionably in the late 80’s, when they twice just lost to Concordia in the finals of League play, despite excellent seasons. In the years after 1990, winning records have been less than a memory, and with Bishop’s departure from the Québec League in 1993, we have concentrated on a travel restricted exhibition schedule, playing teams from Sherbrooke, Montreal, and Vermont.

It is regrettable that just as women’s hockey is undergoing an extraordinary renaissance, with new hockey programmes starting up or being rejuvenated at other universities, a history as long as that of Bishop’s should be facing the prospect of being nibbled to death by budgetary ducks. We have played through roster shortages and virtual anonymity, and we are now continuing to compete with almost no financial resources.

But money is only a symptom. And, in any case, we have never had very much of it. Rather, the problem we face is the same one the team has always faced, and that virtually all women’s sports, in all institutions, face: the perceived priority of, and deeply ingrained preference on the part of administrators, powerful alumni, and the public for, men’s sports. On this view, men’s athletics are important: they support the university; women’s athletics are, still, an extra: women’s sports are good for women, but that doesn’t give them a general priority.

Women’s hockey at Bishop’s is, as it has been in many places, a lesson in persistence in the face of resounding indifference. It exists here as elsewhere because too many women love this wonderful game to give up, despite the obstacles put in their way, whether by design or negligence. But what our experience has shown is that persistence on the ice is not enough. In the late ’sixties the huge funding disparity between men’s and women’s athletics triggered agitation for appointment of a director of women’s athletics (a movement publicly supported by then Athletics Director and football coach, Bruce Coulter). But this never happened, and it can be argued that this has been a detriment to the development of women’s sports at the University, even though participation by women in athletics and recreation is, in fact, greater than that of men. It is clear that women’s sports in general require direct and determined representation in the essentially political domain of athletics administration, to ensure that women receive their share of the finances and the facilities. All women in sports have to be much more forward about promoting and protecting their own game. We’ve shown that we can play the game on the ice; we have to pick up the challenge off the ice, as well.

Leslie A. Howe
August 1997