By April Kemick
It was a reminder that women’s hockey is here and it’s big.
The energy was high and the play fast-paced as nearly 1,000 fans packed the Sandy Hill Arena recently to watch the Chinese National Women’s hockey team take on the Ottawa Raiders of the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL).
Flag-toting fans and Chinese cheers filled the arena as the Raiders muscled their way to a 4-1 win over their opponent in the exhibition game.
It was a big victory for the Raiders, who are just 4-10 so far in the NWHL this season.
“Team China is a fast team and we were very happy with our play,” said Raiders’ general manager Barry Madigan. “Our players are really coming together as a team now.”
The Raiders players, a mix of experienced former Team Canada members and young up-and-comers, could have chosen to play hockey elsewhere. Some graduated from American universities before returning to Ottawa to play professionally.
But Madigan says the Raiders and the NWHL are renewing efforts to keep Canadian talent on this side of the border.
“We’ve seen too many players go to the States,” he says. “What we’re trying to do . . . is affiliate with Canadian universities so (players) can play for them and at the same time play for us. If we keep them here in our league, playing at the top level, then it benefits them, and it benefits the universities as well.”
Competing with American schools for Canadian players became a growing problem as the popularity of women’s hockey and availability of U.S. scholarships increased. Now the Raiders are joining forces with Ottawa universities to improve opportunities for women here.
They have already formed a close relationship with the University of Ottawa and have approached Carleton. Madigan says these relationships will allow women to play high-caliber hockey in Ottawa while also giving university teams a boost.
“We’re working hand in hand with them to improve and keep the girls here in Canada. Our hockey programs here are getting better and better,” he says.
Raiders’ forward Alison Domenico agrees. The 16-year-old is starting to examine he roptions and she’s not ruling out remaining in Canada.
“Girls’ hockey here is getting better, and it’s getting more publicity. I could definitely stay in town and continue to play for these guys,” she says.
Teammate Nicole Latreille, 17, says she has been approached by several American schools, but is considering Canadian programs as well, even though they don’t offer scholarships.
“I’m checking out the (American) schools and the caliber of their hockey teams,” she says. “But there are so many opportunities here. I might stay and play with the Raiders.”
Team owner Peter Lefebvre says the quality of play is high and the cost is low for players who choose to stay in Canada.
“We treat these girls really well and they pay nothing to play here,” he says. Although players aren’t paid a salary, Lefebvre notes that all team travel, equipment and expenses are paid for by the organization.
“It means there’s no real incentive for the girls to go (to the U.S.) anymore.”
According to him, women who play in Canada also get better training and face a higher caliber of play. He says American universities can only offer money for education.
Lefebvre’s daughter Sarah, a Raiders’ goalie, says staying in Canada also offers players a good chance of being scouted for the National Team.
“Making the national team is the best thing that could happen. This is the best way to get noticed.”