QUEENS OF THE ICE AGE
In November, the night before their first of six hockey games in three days, members of the Jasper Barley Queens women’s hockey team were setting up a raffle table to raise money for their first home tournament of the year.
During the set-up, the Barley Queens’ goalie, the ever-caffeinated Wendy Hall, reminded four of the new girls of the team’s ritual: for the first game of the first tournament of the year, everybody comes wearing a dress. It’s a fun way to keep things light, Hall explained. More importantly, she said, it’s a bit of a Barley Queens rite of passage.
“I told them it was to help the players bond,” she said. “That it was a tradition.”
Surprised they hadn’t heard of the protocol, but keen to make a good first impression on their new teammates, rookies Elissa and Rachael Cummins, Danielle Curran and Bryn Millsap got into the spirit. Just before 7 p.m., as friends and fans of the Barley Queens were anticipating an intense first game against the rival Hinton Mustangs, the four rookies lugged their gear into the rink, sporting a variety of fancy dresses—replete with jewelry and high heels.
That’s when they spotted Hall retrieving her own equipment from the arena lockers. Hall was wearing her regular street clothes. She had a toque on. She definitely wasn’t in a dress.
“They were like ‘what the hell?’” Hall recalled. “It was very funny.”
Spend a few minutes around the Barley Queens, and you quickly learn they love to have fun together. Five years ago, however, there weren’t as many laughs in the dressing room. Although fans couldn’t tell from where they were sitting, there was tension within the group. At that time, the team was in its infancy, having recently branched off from the long-standing women’s team in Jasper, The Rustlers. It was a natural-enough separation—there were enough players to create two teams and the more competitive of the bunch wanted a bigger challenge—but some of the Rustlers were ticked off that their team was suddenly fractured. As a result, many of the Barley Queens felt guilty for thinking they were the cause of that hurt.
“No one wanted to hurt the Rustlers, but we had 12 or 13 girls who wanted to go to tournaments,” said Jess Prinn, who was one of the those who felt like a defector. “The Barley Queens wanted something more competitive.”
At first, they weren’t competitive at all. Hall, who’d helped spearhead the changes, was brand new to playing hockey, let alone the goalie position. When she struggled to keep pucks out of the net, there wasn’t a whole lot of sympathy from her former teammates. And despite self-identifying as the more competitive players, the girls who made up the defence and the forward positions weren’t yet confident in their new roles.
Undoubtedly, some wondered if they’d made the right decision. Many women played on both teams and were caught in the middle.
But the Barley Queens carried on. This wasn’t the first time they’d faced challenges, neither as a team nor as individuals. Many of the women had heard their fair share of rude, sexist comments growing up playing hockey. Some of them had dealt with outright discrimination. Smooth skating, ceaselessly smiling Lee Ann Cross was one such player. Her efforts to play in one of Jasper’s local pick-up leagues were resisted by a small but vocal minority of men who didn’t want to share the ice surface with a woman. It took courage and the support of her more enlightened male friends, but Cross eventually got back on the ice. As soon as she did, the chauvinist attitudes evaporated.
Cross isn’t the only Barley Queen to have shattered one of Jasper’s glass hockey ceilings. When former Ohio State forward Colleen Olson came to town, as well as playing with the ladies, she soon became the first (non-goalie) female to play in the Jasper commercial hockey league.
Since then, Olson, a powerful skater possessing a heavy shot, has not only shown her ability to move the puck forward, but has been able to move the team forward, too. Olson’s experience and leadership enabled her to eventually take over as player/coach from a rotating roster of well-meaning, yet ultimately miscast, men. Today, having a female lead the team’s strategy is not only less awkward during dressing room speeches, it further asserts the team’s independence.
Despite the changing faces of The Barley Queens, Hall said the team hasn’t forgotten where they started—as a group of gals who just want to get out and have fun together. Hall said there have been many people in town who helped paved the path to independent women’s adult hockey, women like early Rustlers organizer Jacquie Werbicki, or more recently, Mary Koleman, whose constant boosterism for women’s and mixed hockey has allowed countless ladies to get on the ice, some of them for the first time in their lives.
Moreover, there is an entire new crop of female hockey players being groomed at the minor hockey level in Jasper. One of those teams, the Atom Grizzlies, recently returned from a weekend hockey camp with Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser. And at the next level up, the girls Bantam Grizzlies were just in Edmonton with their own heroes, the women of the NAIT Oooks hockey team.
Of course, it takes a big commitment from parents to pull off the minor hockey lifestyle. There are a lot of far-flung hotels to be booked, a lot of car windshields to be scraped and a lot of skates to be tied before the girls can even get on the ice.
But take it from Prinn’s father, Mark, it’s all worth it. Prinn, along with Jeff Melanson, helped reestablish girls hockey in the mid-1990s after a 20-year lapse (shout out to the Ruddy sisters, some of the original Jasper female hockey players). Mark says he doesn’t remember the goals his daughters scored or the wins they accumulated or even the lessons in teamwork they learned. What he remembers is how much fun the family had with the other parents while watching the kids improve.
“Now to see where [girls’ hockey] has gone, to see how it’s grown in Jasper, it’s so exciting,” Prinn said.
What’s also rewarding is knowing that his daughter is having as much fun playing pickup hockey with her friends as he did with his.
And if part of that fun is pranking the rookies, more power to them.