BOB'S BLOG: Women's hockey in the '30s rivalled the men's for popularity
(Photo above) Archival photo of the Rivulettes, from hockeyhistory.org
A recent newspaper brought news of the defeat of the Montreal Stars by the Boston Blades as the American squad captured the Clarkson Cup awarded annually to the champion of women’s hockey in North America.
I’m not sure whether to call it professional hockey because, as writer Kerry Gillespie goes to great lengths to show, the women playing this game don’t get paid to play and, in fact, “have jobs just so they can afford to play the game they love.”
Unlike the NHL, where even the most insignificant games with Canadian teams involved draw huge crowds, this championship game was played before only about 1,000 fans at the Markham Arena.
It wasn’t always like this for women’s hockey.
In fact, in the thirties their game was about as popular as the men’s version.
The best women’s team of that era was the Preston Rivulettes, who won Ontario Women’s Championships every year from 1931 to 1940, losing only two games in the decade. Preston, now part of Cambridge, situated on the banks of the Grand River, was once a thriving industrial town and was the home base for Canada’s least-known successful hockey team.
While Howie Morenz, the best men’s player of the era, starred with the Montreal Canadiens as they won two Stanley Cups in this decade, Rivulette standout Hilda Ranscombe led her squad to four national championships.
A few years ago I drove up to Preston and met with Betty Barnes, a niece of Hilda’s and two other players from the team (Ranscombe’s sister Nellie and Gladys Pitcher.)
Barnes knew little of the hockey heroes until late in their lives but she had saved a green garbage bag full of Rivulette memorabilia.
Newspaper clippings of the day document:
● A 4-1 win over the Maroons in Montreal witnessed by 3,000 fans – “the finest exhibition of girls hockey ever seen in the Metropolis.”
● The “biggest celebration since the signing of the Armistice” when 1,500 turned out to greet the Rivulettes after two defeats (their only losses) to the Edmonton Rustlers in 1933.
● A 10-0 “kalsomining” over Toronto Pats in 1935.
With war and the ascendancy of professional men’s hockey (i.e., the NHL) the women’s game virtually disappeared. Today the marginalization of women’s hockey and women’s sport in general appears to be reversing, albeit slowly. Canadian Women’s Hockey League games I’ve been to in recent years have been fast-paced, competitive events without the macho hooliganism so often on display at men’s games.
The Rivulettes entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1963. While they certainly haven’t received the credit they are due, the stories of their opponents from small Ontario towns like Port Dover, Chalk River, Bracebridge and Gravenhurst still wait to be heard. We'd love to hear your stories.
Check out this salute to the women's game the CBC archives:
Bob Wood is a housing and poverty advocate and former two-term Burlington City Councillor who is building a bed-and-breakfast with his wife on Lake Erie.