LAKE PLACID, N.Y.—Debbie Osborne eased into a seat inside Herb Brooks Arena and stared out at her 17-year-old daughter, Kayle, as a hockey game between the United States and Canada featuring girls under age 18 was set to get under way.
A single mother who has a full-time job in Ottawa, Osborne had arranged her work schedule in mid-August to be able to drive to Lake Placid to watch her daughter play, go back home and work her shift, then do it all again two more times.
She didn’t want to miss anything.
“For Kayle, watching her grow up and having all these dreams of getting to where she is, on the pathway — and the hard work and the effort and the joy and the excitement and the ups and the downs — it’s amazing,” Osborne said. “She eats, lives, breathes hockey. It’s just amazing to see her and the other girls at this level.”
Dozens of young women trekked to Lake Placid recently to play, with many hoping it is a stepping stone to something greater: Playing in college, perhaps, maybe the Olympics or world championship, and more than a few harbour dreams of making a living at hockey. A career.
That road is a murky one for now.
The Canadian Women’s Hockey League folded in April after 12 years, and more than 200 players who formed the Professional Women’s Hockey Players’ Association a month later all pledged to sit out this season while demanding a single, economically viable league — even as the five-team National Women’s Hockey League goes forward with its fifth season, beginning Saturday.
The PWHPA elected to barnstorm and the first stop on its Dream Gap Tour featured some 80 players split over four teams for a two-day tournament last month in Toronto. It was some competition for national team players such as American Brianna Decker who won’t be playing in a professional league this winter.
“Our goal is to grow the game,” said Decker, who served as a coach in Lake Placid. “As the players get older, we want them to have a sustainable and reliable professional league to play in. Younger players are just honestly really appreciative of what we’re trying to do. They’re all on board.”
Players such as 20-year-old Cayla Barnes of Eastvale, Calif., who followed her four older brothers into the sport.
“I think it’s a constant fight for equality that the older girls are wanting to get,” said Barnes, who plays defence for Boston College. “They have certain things that they want. I think it’s great that they’re fighting for it. They’re ultimately paving the way for us and girls younger than us to have more success down the road.
“I would love to (play professionally) eventually, so I’m hoping by the time I’m out of college it’s all figured out and secure because that is a goal of mine.”
Taylor Heise of Lake City, Minn., a sophomore at the University of Minnesota and a member of USA Hockey’s under-22 team, said she appreciates the solidarity the pro players have demonstrated.
“Being part of this program means supporting one another,” Heise said. “Whether you’re on the younger team, the older team, it’s important to support one another as women. Even though we have a place to play because we’re in college, just staying with them and know that they have our support is really beneficial.”
The term Dream Gap represents the missing link for women who fear that playing in college or the Olympics will be their last hurrah. And being a pro hasn’t been what most probably envisioned in their youthful dreams.
Try living on $3,000 (U.S.) a year.
“In 10 years I don’t want somebody to be in my shoes,” said Liz Knox, a former CWHL goalie and PWHPA board member who works full-time as a contractor and also is a volunteer firefighter. “I don’t want somebody working full-time and trying to find time to squeeze into the gym and eat well. And let’s not even talk about getting enough sleep because that’s just out of the question for me.
“Let’s level the playing field. Let’s give these women the opportunity to be the best athletes they can be because we really just don’t have that right now. It’s not because the product isn’t sellable, it’s because the product has never been sold.”
Just as important as the crowds at the small arena in Toronto for the first stop of the barnstorming tour were the sponsors on board — Unifor, Adidas, Budweiser, the NHL Players’ Association, Secret, Bauer, Tim Hortons and the Toronto Maple Leafs among them.
“I think we’re all starting to understand the value of strong female leaders, be it in sport or be it in business or be it in society,” said former Canadian national team player Jayna Hefford, a hockey hall of famer and member of PWHPA board. “I think sponsors are seeing that. That’s what this is creating. It’s about more than hockey and it’s about more than sport, in my opinion.”
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The PWHPA also scheduled tour stops in New Hampshire (this weekend) and Chicago (Oct. 18-20) with more in the planning stages.
“I think for us it’s everything,” said 32-year-old Kacey Bellamy, a member of the U.S. Olympic gold medal-winning team last year. “Yes, we’re hockey players. But I think, number one, we try to be good role models. We are doing this for the next generation, and it might not benefit us, but we’re hoping it benefits the girls 10, 20, 30 years from now.
“We’re just trying to put a great product out there just so that these little girls can have dreams like we did when we were little.”