Ailish Forfar’s “The Dream Gap” documentary a declaration of the game’s hopes

While a key focus of the PWHPA has involved, understandably, the players and the collaborative goal of heralding a golden age for the game, the feeling of teamwork is certainly just as impactful off the ice. Such an impact goes beyond the number of dedicated volunteers and sponsors. The definition took on a more profound meaning, enhanced by a highly creative visual production, representing an amazing assembly of talent by the affable Ailish Forfar that put its finger on the pulse of the raison d’etre of the PWHPA.

Through her academic obligations, working towards completing her studies in Ryerson Sport Media, it served as the portal, which provided Forfar with a creative vision to engage in a film project that would incorporate her appreciation of hockey, stimulating a sense of mission to raise awareness about the PWHPA and its collective goals. Dubbed “The Dream Gap”, the title paid homage to a key staple of the PWHPA’s first year of events, as a barnstorming tour throughout North America also featured the same name.

Realizing the concept in late summer, Forfar saw the potential to incorporate the best of both worlds. With the current state of professional women’s ice hockey in a type of somnambulism, there was a strong sense of inspiration to provide a visual narrative. Finding a heightened sense of purpose, it was a project perfectly suited to bring out Forfar’s passion for the game. Preserving the persistence among those in the game that is poised to stand as a template for future generations to emulate.

“The Dream Gap film/project was my final practicum for Ryerson Sport Media – the four year program I have officially just graduated from (virtually!). I was working with some classmates who I had formed a great relationship with over the years and had similar interests in covering women’s hockey stories. So I pitched the idea to them late August before classes started up to do something on the new PWHPA movement as I was joining and was personally motivated to help tell our story.

It was a perfect meshing of my academic and athletic passions. With the access I would have as a player/teammate to the PWHPA, and with my classmates’ incredible skill sets, I knew we would be able to create a really meaningful and personal project that would help tell our story.”

Having called the likes of Erin Ambrose and Laura Stacey as teammates with the PWHL’s Toronto Jr. Aeros, Forfar later starred at the Ivy League level with the Dartmouth College Big Green, playing alongside Stacey once again. Forfar’s university odyssey would conclude with a tribute to her Greater Toronto Area roots, skating with the Ryerson Rams, whose home ice at the Mattamy Athletic Centre, based inside the former Maple Leaf Gardens, helped maintain a proud hockey legacy in the city.

Serving as team captain of the burgeoning program, excelling under the tutelage of Lisa Haley, enjoying the prestige of a First-Team OUA All-Star, complemented by the privilege of wearing the Maple Leaf at the Winter Universiade, Forfar’s skills and acumen for the game established her as a top prospect for the professional ranks.

Selected by the defending Clarkson Cup champion Markham Thunder with the ninth pick of the 2018 CWHL Draft, a team that serendipitously featured Stacey on its roster, Forfar remained associated with the Rams program following her eligibility as a player. Serving dutifully as a member of Haley’s coaching staff; the experience ran parallel to her inaugural season of professional hockey, marking a highly eventful time for the product of Sharon, Ontario.

Although Forfar’s first season with the Thunder proved to be the last in franchise history, she remained highly occupied during 2019-20, as the path taken was one spurred by a highly unforeseen announcement. As the Thunder no longer had a league to play in, the franchise thrust into stasis, the result was a shift in focus.

Maintaining her role on the Rams coaching staff, Forfar provided a welcome presence. As an alumnus not far removed from her glory days in Rams colours, she combined elements of empathy and friendship, providing an approach that maintained her proud legacy as one of the program’s finest leaders.

With a highly talented roster featuring Kryshandra (Krash) Green, who followed Forfar’s example by serving as team captain, Lauren Nicholson and Erica Crouse led the team in scoring with 26 and 25 points each. The season culminated with a sweep of the Brock Badgers in the opening round of the McCaw Cup playoffs as former OUA All-Rookie selection Brooklyn Gemmill scored the series-clinching goal. Enjoying their first-ever semi-final victory, as Nicholson logged the game-winner in a 3-2 opening game triumph against cross-town rival Toronto Lady Blues. Although the program was unable to reach the McCaw Cup Finals, the transfers of Laurier’s Jamie Watson and All-Canadian Annie Berg are poised to ensure that the run of momentum continues.

Worth noting, Forfar’s duties during a highly eventful, yet exciting, time involved another unique endeavor. While engaged in her studies through the Ryerson Sport Media curriculum, Forfar also established a remarkable online presence as a reporter for Yahoo Sports, covering NHL hockey with a highly entertaining weekly program during the 2019-20 NHL season. Currently working with Steve Dangle on NHL Chatroom, which debuted during the 2020 NHL Playoffs, Forfar’s on-air proficiency was evident two years prior. At the 2018 Paralympic Winter Games, Forfar was an online video blogger for Samsung. Additionally, Forfar contributed a written piece to Chicken Soup for the Soul’s Hooked on Hockey prior to enrolling at Dartmouth, demonstrating a positive attitude and a profound maturity that would serve her well.

In committing herself to the project of “The Dream Gap”, such values were highly evident, as it also resulted in Forfar accepting her competitive limitations. Sacrificing a season of play, withdrawing from any PWHPA exhibition games, the focus of the documentary allowed her to maintain a heartfelt association with hockey, a highly satisfying facet. Indubitably, the sense of teamwork that encompassed Forfar’s on-ice career remained essential behind the lens. Fittingly, Forfar would find a muse in a former Thunder teammate.

Liz Knox, the franchise’s all-time winningest goaltender, was a member of the PWHPA’s Board during the filming of the documentary. In addition, a volunteer firefighter in the town of Whitchurch-Stouffville, which includes footage during the documentary with Knox in uniform, she graciously stepped down from the Board in September 2020 to allow Sarah Nurse a place. Remaining in the capacity of advisor, her reputation for strong leadership and revered standing as a model teammate shined through during Forfar’s labours. Among the interview subjects, Knox’s highly articulate and poignant insights added significantly to the documentary’s tone.

“My teammates were supportive of this idea and appreciative of the fact I would have to cut back on my involvement on the ice. I was balancing being a full time student at Ryerson, a part time coach with the Ryerson Women’s Hockey team, all while having a full time job as a Reporter and On-Air host at Yahoo Sports covering the NHL. I basically knew by September, I could not add in 2-3 practices a week in the evenings up in Markham, plus games/travel on weekends with all of that, while also producing the documentary for my program.

The decision to step off the ice and focus on this storytelling passion was necessary for my sanity too! Any teammates I reached out to for help were always so supportive, especially Liz Knox, who I frequently bothered. My Ryerson group had a great time working with the players and staff and helping tell this story and wish we could have had more time to do more (Ryerson semester only allowed us to complete the project from mid September – end of November for grades).”

Billie Jean King in the PWHPA jersey

As production ensued, Forfar’s passion and focus on strong production values were evident. Considering that a key aspect of the documentary would involve interview footage, she was determined to feature people of prominence, providing a sense of importance to the current state of affairs in the game, while enriching the compelling story unfolding. In addition to the aforementioned Knox, other iconic hockey figures that were interview subjects included Hockey Hall of Famer Jayna Hefford, also the all-time leading scorer in Thunder franchise history and current Operations Consultant of the PWHPA, along with Hilary Knight, a gold medalist from the 2018 Winter Games.

Of all the individuals that provided their commentary to the documentary, perhaps none held as much influence as the legendary Billie Jean King. Having become a household name in 1973, the same year that she founded the Women’s Tennis Association, when she opposed Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis challenge at the Houston Astrodome, she was also named Sports Illustrated’s Sportswoman of the Year in 1972. Also founding the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974, King’s effect not only extends beyond the hardcourt but also remains relevant to this day.

Determined to ensure a voice for women in sport, another aspect of King’s mission involves ensuring that female athletes know their value, embodying the sentiments shared by the PWHPA and the likes of Alex Morgan, who remains highly vocal in the US national women’s soccer team’s fight for pay equity. Considering how King’s influence has transcended generations, her presence in women’s ice hockey resulted in coverage from The Wall Street Journal and NHL.com.

Undeniably, the opportunity for King to appear in front of the camera and share her insights on the current mission of the PWHPA provided Forfar, who drove to Chicago with her colleagues, a tremendous feeling of achievement and validation. Decked out in the white jersey with sharp red and blue trim, also worn at the PWHPA Magellan Showcase in Chicago, of which Billie Jean King Enterprises also provided financing for the event, her vision for the future of the game involves three key pillars. An emphasis on ensuring women have a place to compete, gain appreciation for their accomplishments and earn a living wage. One of King’s comments in the documentary included the very well stated, ‘…we will no longer settle for crumbs.’

“I set our sights very high initially in the planning stages of production, knowing that big names and support from icons for women in sport would only help with the validity and storytelling of our documentary. Luckily, I knew Jayna (Hefford) personally from the CWHL and she was eager to help with our story and to help us get access to our players and others that supported the PWHPA’s movement. She was helpful in securing an interview with Billie Jean King in Chicago, which was one of the coolest career moments of my life so far.

Billie has lived through almost exactly what is happening right now with women’s hockey, and is a leader and an inspiration for most female athletes regardless of which sport you play. Interviewing her was one of the most inspirational conversations I have ever had; being able to see and feel her passion for equality and empowerment and to know that she was hearing our own wishes and our own vision was huge.

She is also a firecracker and hilarious and so generous with her time, and we could have talked for an hour and still wanted to hear more. I’m proud to have been able to pull that interview off – we drove to Chicago and back just to meet with her (all of this entire production was paid out of pocket by us, as students!).”

In conjunction with the PWHPA’s first event of 2020, a weekend affair spanning from January 11-12 in Toronto, highlighted by the Secret Showcase, featuring an unprecedented six teams, the Saturday night festivities included the first screening of The Dream Gap. Representing a major milestone for the assiduous Forfar, highlighting a new chapter in her hockey journey, a flood of emotion overtook her.

“The entire documentary screening night was definitely a blur of excitement, nervousness and high expectations – kind of like a hockey game – and one of the proudest nights of my life. We had two incredible panels before and after the documentary (audio is available on Homestand’s PuckTalk page) to provide context, to get the audience thinking and help bookend our story.

When the documentary started playing, I looked around the audience and saw a packed crowd fully engrossed into a project we had poured our heart and soul into, and I felt really proud of my entire team and everyone involved. After it ended, and the audience started clapping and standing on their feet… I had tears in my eye and a lump in my throat because I was overwhelmed with emotion, gratitude, exhaustion, excitement, relief and champagne.

The response after, the messages we received, the amount of people who wanted to see it again and show their friends, teammates, co-workers, families, and more, just proved that we had a story worth telling. Admittedly we are in talks to get it shown on TV very soon, but even if that does not work, we will keep trying to get it seen by many because we do believe that it is necessary to show and help that next generation understand what we are fighting for.”

Following the screening, Forfar hosted a Player’s Panel with the likes of Knight, Knox and Marie-Philip Poulin, whose golden goals at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Games placed her in the same stratosphere of Canadian hockey mythology as Paul Henderson. Their collective presence was not only a source of great interest for the audience; it added a feeling of both, importance and endorsement for the documentary itself.

Sharing the common thread of having all played in the final CHWL season, Forfar and Knox aligned with the Thunder, while Knight and Poulin were garbed in the tri-colore of Les Canadiennes de Montreal, appearing in the last Clarkson Cup Finals. Definitely, the sense of mutual respect and shared love of the game set the tone for a fascinating discussion.

“It is always a weird feeling to just casually say that these legends are… my friends? I am so lucky, really, to know and be surrounded by such passionate, influential, bad-*ss women who are leaders in everything they do.”

Certainly, the Dream Gap documentary represents a …. With a tremendous admiration for the game and its players, Forfar’s focus

I respect all female hockey players, across all leagues, organizations and countries, for their dedication to a sport and a cause that often does not provide everything we desire, and frustrates us, exposes inequalities, and makes us question the future of that next generation.

Because without girls like these, or stories like ours, we will never move forward and make a change that will last. I am so proud to have started a conversation, to have sparked debate or helped new perspectives form. It is important to keep women’s sports in the spotlight, because we deserve to have people want to tell our story not only when it is convenient or when it is necessary, but always.”

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

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