February 7, 2010 in Sports

Bring on boys

Canadian women 16-10 vs. males
Greg Beacham Associated Press
 
Tags:hockey
Associated Press photo

Hayley Wickenheiser and Canadian women’s team proved they can beat boys teams.
(Full-size photo)

When Canada’s best female hockey player put a teenage boy in a headlock, the Great White North gave a gasp.

Then it mostly cheered for Hayley Wickenheiser, who got just a bit fed up with Dane Phaneuf’s rambunctious play during the Canadian national team’s game against Phaneuf’s Edmonton South Side Athletics, a squad of 15- to 17-year-olds from the Alberta Midget Hockey League.

“It was really blown out of proportion up here, but I’d had enough, and that hit in particular got to me,” Wickenheiser said of the headlock heard ’round Canada. “He was taking liberties, and their whole team had been talking. I had to do something, but that might happen two or three times out of 50 games against guys.”

The video highlight of that scuffle made national news, yet it also brought attention to another groundbreaking move by the women’s team that has won the last two Olympic golds.

For those who still think women’s hockey players can’t beat even a mediocre boys team, Canada is repeatedly proving otherwise during a lengthy barnstorming schedule across Alberta.

With the rest of the women’s hockey world still playing catch-up against Canada and the United States, the Canadian team has prepared for the last three Olympics with regular games against boys teams, believing they provide the best opposition available. While the Americans played an inconsistent schedule against boys high school teams, Canada has a wealth of hockey-playing teenagers within driving distance of its centralized camp in Calgary.

Thanks to an innovative strategy by AMHL president Neil Robertson, his teams’ games against Canada even counted in the league standings, giving the teenagers more than a patriotic motivation for pushing the women’s team to improve.

“We get the opportunity to get into physical games, and they have two points on the line,” Wickenheiser said. “Nobody is taking the night off on either side. We work through the fatigue of being on the road, and we’re challenged in a variety of situations. There’s no better competition that we’ll face in the Olympics.”

Wickenheiser and her teammates have heard it for more than a decade now: Ever since women’s hockey entered the Olympics in 1998, doubters and chauvinists have minimized the sport, claiming any good boys team could trounce the women.

Now there’s quantifiable proof they’re wrong. The Canadian women have gone 16-10 in the AMHL games that counted, regularly beating Alberta’s top teenagers – including Phaneuf, the younger brother of Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf.

The games are played without bodychecking, conforming to the women’s Olympic rules – but anything else goes. And when the boys occasionally forget they can’t hit, as Phaneuf did, Wickenheiser is there to remind them.

“For the most part 100 percent of the time, the guys are terrific,” Canada coach Melody Davidson said. “They’re excited about helping us on our journey to the Olympics. It’s a fun game for them because they don’t have to worry about getting pounded, and once they get used to playing our style, it really tests both teams. I think it’s a great program.”

The American team hoped to have a similar setup with the top high school teams around their own centralized camp in the Twin Cities area, but the Minnesota teams’ scheduling limitations only allowed a few meetings.

The 31-year-old Wickenheiser has ample experience playing against men from her time in professional leagues in Sweden and Finland, where she became the first woman to score a goal in a men’s league in 2003.

American defenseman Angela Ruggiero played alongside her brother in a men’s minor league in Tulsa, while Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados was the first woman to play in the junior Western Hockey League in 2002. She also was a standout in the Alberta Junior league before playing collegiate men’s hockey for Grant MacEwan in Edmonton. But the regular midget competition has honed the Canadians’ game as they attempt to mesh a team with veterans of multiple Olympics alongside a few rookies.

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