The Women’s Hockey Club of Toronto (WHCT), now in its 23rd season, is believed to be the only lesbian/lesbian-positive league in Canada and certainly one of the largest in North America. With dozens of volunteers over the years and close to 200 players for the past 19, this low-priced, queer recreational league focuses on fairplay and fun for women of mixed ages and skills.
The inspiration for the League began in 1992, when a handful of hockey-loving dykes played shinny, put a women’s team together, found a sponsor in the Badlands Restaurant on Isabella and entered the Gay/Lesbian Hockey tournament in Montreal. With a taste of what hockey could be, Sheryl Wright, Janet Ashworth, Simone Burket, Jennifer Hart, Kandy Kennedy, Hailee Morrison and Gabriel VanDerVelde envisioned an entirely new league. At that time, says Jennifer Hart, ‘Gay women were not always well received in women’s hockey leagues and couldn’t be very open. But playing with other gay women, you could be yourself, relax and enjoy the game.’
The group put out a call for ‘lesbian and gay-positive women’ wishing to ‘enjoy hockey at an affordable cost, regardless of skill level.’ They hoped for interest from 60 women for 4 teams. The response: 5 teams, a waiting list, 4 additional sponsors (Deco’s, Devon, JJ’s and The Rose Cafe), and in the fall of 1993, the Women’s Hockey Club of Toronto was born.
Jennifer Hart, Celine Cimon, Kandy Kennedy and Hailee Morrison formed WHCT’s first organizing Collective, set up the teams and booked ice time at the Moss Park Arena at Queen and Sherbourne. Jennifer Hart designed the League’s logo, still on the front of team jerseys today. $1 per player per game was collected to pay for referees and in the beginning, male refs from the arena were used. But Jennifer recalls, ‘They didn’t take it seriously. They leaned on the boards and chatted with the women on the bench while the game was in play and gave advice during face-offs. We knew we’d have to find female refs, so a couple players who were also refs, helped us find our own. A lesbian league hadn’t existed before—we were making it up as we went along.’
With a table at PRIDE, ads in Xtra and word of mouth, the League grew—8 teams in 1996, 11 in 1997, 12 in 1998. In a 1998 article in Siren (a bimonthly magazine that ceased publication in 2004), Sue Reynolds discusses Canadian Women’s Hockey, and emphasizes WHCT’s uniqueness: ‘While other women’s hockey leagues are organized by skill level, the WHCT (the dyke league) is available to women of all skill levels. The WHCT (also open to gay-positive women), allows women to play hockey in both a supportive and homophobia-free environment.’
WHCT’s games are played Saturday nights so teams can socialize afterwards at a local sponsor’s.
Jennifer Hart (now known as Jen Hart the Original after two more Jennifer Harts joined the League), served on the Collective for its first 2 years and played for 19 until she moved from the City in 2011.
Joey Gladding and Karen Decker joined the League in 1994 and the Collective the following year. Joey played and served for 19 years before retiring from the League in 2014 at the age of 69. Karen played and served for 12 years until 2005 and now plays in a competitive league.
In 1994, in addition to regular season play, the League hosted its first annual weekend tournament that was to run for 16 years. Theme for that year’s Tournament—You Never Forget Your First. Finding enough ice in Toronto proved difficult, so the 10 teams converged on the Village of Arthur, north of Guelph. After Saturday’s games, the players headed to the Robin’s Nest, a lesbian bar in Cambridge (from 1997 to 2010). ‘There were two busloads of women, cows in the fields and fog on the windows,’ recalls Joey.
In subsequent years, the Tournament was played on Moss Park, East York and North Toronto ice. It attracted up to 24 teams, about half from the League, half from elsewhere (Caledon, Hillsburgh, Bolton, Kitchener, Waterloo, Shallow Lake, Barrie, Schomberg, Newtonbrook, Sudbury, Hamilton, Ottawa, Tonawanda New York and Madison Wisconsin). The last Tournament was held in 2010.
Jane Murphy joined WHCT in 1996 and has played for 21 years. In the past 11, Jane and her daughter Brenda have played on the same team. Jane has served on the Collective for 10. A strong supporter of the League, Jane says, ‘WHCT is a safe place for young women to come out, to have a place that welcomes them.’ (The heteronormative assumption outside the League that everyone is straight is sometimes reversed within the League. More than once, Jane’s daughter has been asked, ‘Hey Brenda is your Mom seeing anybody?’ ‘Yeah,’ says Brenda, ‘my Dad!’)
WHCT has been able to keep costs low—$100 per player in 1992; $255 in 2011; $315 in 2016 ($150 for goalies)—thanks to the support of many volunteers both on and off the Collective, and the financial support of numerous sponsors. There are a multitude of labours in running a league: soliciting sponsors; applying for ice; securing refs and timekeepers; financials; selecting/balancing teams; tracking attendance; preparing team stats; managing the wait list; scheduling games; preparing game sheets; scheduling goalies for teams that don’t have one; and organizing the April end-of-season playoffs, awards and final banquet.
Having numerous sponsors has also ensured the League’s fees are well below other leagues. Some sponsors have supported WHCT for more than a decade—Hair ‘n After, Pegasus, Woody’s, Watson Jordan/Jordan Battista, Urbane Cyclist and Richmond Rogue—to name a few. Individual sponsors have also stepped in when longtime sponsors stepped out. Jerseys are reused and new sponsors’ names sewn on when required. Team reps also assist with communication, reminders and rules. When it comes to volunteers, Jane says, ‘We’ve been incredibly lucky. Even people who no longer play, still volunteer for us because they like the League, had fun playing in it and believe in it.’
Members of the Collective have varied from 3 to 8, with 6 in 2016—Jane Murphy, Li Koo, Lori Lucas, Julie Cissell, Michele Long and Jocelyn Piercy. Members in previous years include; Annemarie Devon, Vicki Vanderburgh, Sara McConnell, Zoi Kiatipis, Marilyn Moore, Jennifer McNenly (9 years!), Mona Tomlinson, Laurie McGrath, Maureen Doherty, Vanessa Vansittart, Janet Hudson, Monica Wickeler, Brenda Murphy, Gisele Knowles, Faith McGregor, Sharon Kemp, Kirsty Grosart and Nola Doucet.
With only a few teams in the beginning, ‘You got to know everyone; made great friendships,’ says Jennifer Hart. And more than a few women met their partner in the League. That’s one more consideration in setting up teams—ex-partners don’t usually want to play together and as illustrated by Maya Sable in the 2007 WHCT Newsletter, ‘Making the teams gets harder and harder every year.’
Off-Collective volunteers over the years include: Marilyn Moore and Kirsty Grosart (soliciting sponsors); Kris Klement and Jen Walsh (sewing); Jennifer McNenly and Trish Gorman (tournament programs and artwork); Monica Wickeler and Maya Saibil (Newsletter); Helene Kay and Kate Grzegorczyk (Website); Liz Earley (financials); Vanessa Vansittart (game sheets) and Mona Tomlinson, Jen McNenly, Zoi Kiatipis and Heather Pollock (Photos).
Moss Park Arena and staff have also ‘been wonderful to deal with from the beginning—open and accommodating,’ says Jennifer.
Lawrence Miranda, an avid WHCT fan for 10 years, is now time/scorekeeper and considered, ‘an honourary member of the Collective.’
WHCT swelled to 13 teams in 2000 and 14 in 2001. With 210 players, there was a wide range of people and personalities. Joey says, ‘Format changes were suggested over the years (eg. divisions by skill or age level, allowing only lesbians), but the Collective stayed true to its original vision.’ Says Jennifer, ‘In the beginning, there would be double AA players on the ice beside women on skates for the fourth time. What other league has a twenty-year-old and a sixty-year-old on the ice at the same time?’
Skills Clinics and Wives’ Games were held to introduce the game to less experienced players. Joey says ‘The Wives’ Games were such fun—the Collective officiated, dressed as cowgirls, superheroes, nurses, nuns, ABBA, KISS.’ Funds raised went to Gilda’s House in honour of former player Nancy Hazelgrove. Although the Wives’ Games are no longer held, WHCT continues to raise funds for Gilda’s House and other community charities such as Street Haven and Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services.
The League evolved over time—longtime players retired and new, younger players joined. Says Jennifer, ‘I was agog at how good the new players were—they’d played since they were 4, had coaches and played competitively.’
‘With the increased skill level, WHCT probably no longer meets the needs of an absolute beginner,’ says Joey. Today, new players should be able to stop, for the safety of themselves and others.
In 2010, changes to the City of Toronto’s ice allocation policy at Board of Management-run arenas threatened WHCT’s use of Moss Park, so the Collective fought City Hall. Joey provided player names and addresses as requested, after ensuring the members had no privacy concerns. Karen Decker made a rousing speech to the City of Toronto’s Community and Recreation Development Committee, saying, ‘The WHCT is more than just a hockey league; it is a social organization which fosters a sense of community and well-being through the shared experience of sport in a safe and supportive environment. Saturday night at Moss Park provides lesbians with the opportunity to be open about who they are, to meet new friends and for many to play the sport of hockey for the first time in their life…About 90 percent of the players are lesbian…The women that belong are a cross section of our society as a whole, teachers, doctors, students, CN rail workers, civil servants, social workers, lawyers and self-employed individuals…This social element is key to the reason why many women view the WHCT as their link to the lesbian community.’ Karen further suggested, ‘the City broaden its approach to ice allocation beyond a weighted formula to account for the diversity in the City of Toronto.’ WHCT won and retained prime-time ice, Saturday nights at Moss Park.
The game is non-contact with no slap shots. Fairplay is encouraged; aggressiveness discouraged. Respect for refs, timekeepers, Collective and Arena staff is mandatory, with issues referred to the WHCT Advisory Committee. ‘Over 23 years, there’ve been few suspensions,’ says Joey.
The League had 14 teams for 14 years. Some teams signed up to play together year after year. With difficulties balancing skill levels, the Collective canvassed the membership and brought in a new ruling allowing only 4 players to sign up together. With more options now available for women’s hockey, some players left, resulting in 12 WHCT teams since 2014.
The September-to-April season culminates with playoffs and a banquet. The awards attest to WHCT’s focus on leadership, fairplay and respect: Jennifer Hart Team Spirit Award (presented since 1997); Joey Gladding Spirit of the League Award (presented since 2012) (honourees include Joey Gladding, Jane Murphy and Chris Pellerin); Most Improved Player; Most Sportswomen-like Player; and Most Dedicated Player.
Joey, now 72, still plays hockey and serves on the Moss Park Board of Management (19 years now). The longest-serving WHCT Collective member says of her time in the League, ‘Over the years, a lot of people have had a really good time and the League’s been able to maintain the social element. I believe in the League. Fostering it was truly a labour of love.’
WHCT memorabilia currently in The ArQuives and/or recently donated by the Collective includes: 1993, 1994, 1996 Registration forms; 1995 Xtra! Ad; 1995-2010 Tournament Programs; 1998 Siren article; 1993, 2007 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014 Newsletters; 2010 Presentation to City Hall; and 2009-2016 Photo CDs.
Author: Janice Martin, The ArQuives volunteer and WHCT player since 1999
Photo Credits: Heather Pollock (used with permission).