Canadian female sporting heroes shine on The Social

As one of the most popular talk shows on Canadian television, it is commendable that the all-female cast of The Social address the quickly expanding relevance of women as sporting heroes. While there are still many obstacles to overcome on the road towards total acceptance for women in sport, the presence of the three athletic heroes that were part of the interview panel displays that the future holds tremendous promise.

With the effervescent Melissa Grelo and inquisitive Lainey Lui handling the interviewing duties, the result was a pleasant discussion with a group of women that cover a breadth of competition. From soccer goalkeeper Karina Leblanc to hockey blueliner Tessa Bonhomme, along with pugilist Mandy Bujold, each are highly accomplished women in their field.

(L-R): Karina Leblanc, Mandy Bujold and Tessa Bonhomme. Image obtained from Twitter

(L-R): Karina Leblanc, Mandy Bujold and Tessa Bonhomme. Image obtained from Twitter

The most obvious aspect of all three was their confidence. Each has accomplished so much, while placing women’s sport in a much bigger part of Canadian popular culture, their careers are symbolic of why girls in sport should keep competing as they mature.

As today’s generation of young women enjoy the chance to look up to a growing number of positive female role models, there are many redeeming qualities in the likes of Bonhomme, Bujold and Leblanc. Even young women that are not athletic can look at them and admire their ability to excel and challenge social convention.

Coincidentally, social aspects were also a key defining factor in the reasons that these women first became involved in sport. Leblanc revealed that she was shy during childhood, joking that she would not have had her current hairstyle (spiked with a streak of blonde near the top) in those formative years. She further revealed that sport filled a void as well, connecting her with other people. Bonhomme also attested to the social impact as getting to know people and connecting with them as key factors in her earliest sporting roots.

Having announced her retirement in the aftermath of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was held on Canadian soil for the first time, Karina Leblanc was one of the most underrated soccer stars that the country ever produced. Although the medal round evaded the ambitious Canadian squad, who were hoping to build on their fairy-tale run to the bronze medal at the 2012 London Summer Games, their effort was a tremendous source of pride, adding another great chapter to sporting Canadiana.

Bonhomme also appreciates the chance to compete in a world-class event on home soil. After a remarkable career with the Ohio State Buckeyes, Bonhomme landed a spot on the Canadian national team, capturing the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games. During the interview, she mentioned how great it was for Bonhomme and her teammates to hear from parents how awesome they were after the victory in Vancouver.

Perhaps more impressive was her career following such heroic heights in Vancouver. From becoming the first-ever draft pick in the history of the CWHL Draft, to landing on the cover of The Hockey News, Bonhomme would be catapulted into celebrity status after winning the Battle of the Blades, the first female hockey player to do so. Currently with TSN (she once interviewed Will Ferrell with LeafsTV), Bonhomme has become a crossover star, with the likeable potential to become even more famous for her work as a TV personality than her empowering run as an elite athlete.

Proudly displaying her championship belt, Mandi Bujold is part of a tremendous change in the sporting landscape as women are now headline competitors in boxing and mixed martial arts. Holly Holm, who shall be immortalized in the sporting pantheon as the woman who beat UFC champion Ronda Rousey was a former boxing champion herself, having defeated the legendary Mia St. John.

In discussing her boxing career, one very visceral and sobering reality hit home for the guests, hosts and the remainder of the panel. Bujold had discussed how judges that were not deemed competent for male matches were assigned to serve in a similar capacity for bouts featuring women. For the viewer at home, a collective sigh of surprise (and perhaps shock) could clearly be heard as such conditions are demeaning and dehumanizing.

Later in the segment, Grelo made an excellent point of acknowledging that to be an elite athlete, hardcore training was essential, in essence, akin to a full-time job. Sadly, such effort has resulted with being compensated differently, one of the great gender inequities of the modern era. Leblanc had emphasized in the interview that the prize money for the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship team was tens of millions less than the male victors, a real-life example of the effort that lay ahead in the off-field fight for equality.

While there is no question that women in sport have to work harder to be taken seriously, such work will eventually bear prosperous fruit. For the future female sports athletes how grew up emulating the efforts of Bonhomme, Bujold and Leblanc, it will add to a proud legacy. Each one of them stirred the hearts of sports fans, making them proud to be Canadians, and for that, they will always have their gratitude.

Tensions mount in rare women’s hockey fight

As Canada and the United States get ready for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, tensions mounted during an exhibition game on October 14 in Burlington, Vermont. While the eternal rivalry between these two storied hockey powers continued, a rare scuffle between both sides only added to the intensity.

With Jocelyne Lamoureux skating down the ice, she was unable to bury the puck into the Canadian net. She would run into Canada’s Courtney Birchard where a shoving match ensued. Suddenly, the two fell to the ice with Birchard attempting a headlock on her fallen competitor. Monique Lamoureux-Kolls and Kelli Stack came to the aid of Lamoureux, only to have Canada’s Tessa Bonhomme and Hayley Wickenheisher quickly come to Birchard’s defense. From there, it was a sea of US and Canadian jerseys as a scrum ensued near the Canadian net.

Suddenly, it was not just Birchard and Lamoureux engaging in a physical confrontation. Anne Schleper of the US and 17-year veteran Jayna Hefford were in a shoving match. As the referees tried to bring order to a chaotic situation, Jocelyne Lamoureux tried to punch Birchard.

This was followed by Tessa Bonhomme and Kelli Stack getting up from the ice to start putting their fingers into each other’s facemasks, providing fans with the impression that it was a mixed martial arts match and not a hockey exhibition. While Wickenheiser separated the two, Megan Bozek of the US started shoving Bonhomme. Wickenheiser would come to her defense, only to get shoved by Bozek as well.

Although Canada prevailed by a 3-2 tally, four players were given roughing majors. For fans that are concerned about the possibility of violence contaminating the women’s game, this is just a rare bump on the road to respectability.

The pressure to win is immense for both countries as it constitutes one of the most heated rivalries in all of sport. Combined with the fact that Canadian and US players are part of Centralization Camps that last over four months, in which they are also away from their families, it only adds to the underlying stress of winning gold. For hockey purists, this just needs to be taken with a grain of salt and understood that this was an outpouring of frustration rather than anger or malicious intent.

Fantastic foursome of Furies stars look to help Canada win gold at Sochi 2014

As Canada looks to win their fourth consecutive gold medal in women’s ice hockey at the Winter Games, a remarkable group of wondrous women from the Toronto Furies will attempt to make that goal a reality. Tessa Bonhomme, Natalie Spooner and Jennifer Wakefield are a titanic trio currently part of Canada’s centralization roster.

Along with Rebecca Johnston, a legendary player from the Cornell Big Red and a member of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Games squad that captured gold, Spooner and Wakefield were selected in the historic 2012 CWHL Draft. All three had remarkable rookie seasons, helping to redefine the blue and white’s offensive attack. Spooner would break the franchise record for most goals scored in one season, while Johnston scored the game winning goal in the Clarkson Cup playoffs against Brampton.

Prior to their summer departure, Furies teammates gave them a sendoff. With emotions running high at the gathering, the Furies have to adjust to the upcoming season without four key players. While the Furies have drafted the likes of Katie Wilson, Sasha Nanji, Alyssa Baldin and Kristy Garrow, these four fantastic women have left an impression on their teammates and their fans.

In their teens, the two both played ball hockey together for the Oshawa Stampede. Besides their time together as rookies with the Furies, the two also had the opportunity to play at the 2013 IIHF Women’s World Championships in Ottawa. It was their first time on home soil as members of the senior team. It would only be fitting if the two could make their Winter Games debut together.

(Left to right): Wakefield, Spooner and Bonhomme receive a Sochi-themed cake as a sendoff from their Furies teammates (Obtained from Facebook:

(Left to right): Wakefield, Spooner and Bonhomme receive a Sochi-themed cake as a sendoff from their Furies teammates (Obtained from Facebook:

Bonhomme, Spooner and Wakefield have established themselves as the three most popular players on the Furies roster. Having all carved significant legends in women’s hockey, . Spooner is the first woman in hockey history to have played on the Canadian Under-18, Under-22/Development Team and senior national teams.

Wakefield is the all-time leading scorer in Hockey East history and has also held the rare honor of competing with the U18, U22 and Senior Teams. In her first season with the Boston Univeristy Terriers, she had the opportunity to compete with Vancouver 2010 gold medalists Marie-Philip Poulin and Catherine Ward.

Bonhomme, the first-ever draft pick in the history of the CWHL was an All-American with Ohio State University and was a champion in the CBC-Television smash hit Battle of the Blades. Of note, she is a reporter for Leafs-TV while holding endorsements with the likes of McDonalds. In October 2012, she was also on the cover of The Hockey News.

Should Spooner and Wakefield both be named to Canada’s contingent looking to win gold at Sochi, it would signify a new chapter in their long friendship. While Spooner has also played with Laura McIntosh at three different levels of hockey, she has known Wakefield since childhood.

Teammates and more importantly, friends since childhood. Spooner and Wakefield will make their Winter Games debut together. (Image obtained from Twitter

Teammates and more importantly, friends since childhood. Spooner and Wakefield will make their Winter Games debut together. (Image obtained from Twitter

On September 8 and 10, 2013, Bonhomme, Johnston, Spooner and Wakefield were part of Team Canada’s exhibition series versus the Russian national women’s team. With Russia having won the bronze medal at the 2013 Worlds, momentum is strong heading into Sochi. The exhibition was also an opportunity for team building while becoming more familiar with the area.

Shayba Arena hosted the series and Spooner made the difference in the 6-1 victory on September 8. Two days later, Canada prevailed by an 8-1 tally as Johnston, Spooner and Wakefield played together on one line. Spooner logged an assist while Johnston recorded two assists to go along with Wakefield’s solid two goal performance.

While the Centralization Camp can be a long and grueling process, the possible reward of a gold medal at the end transforms this laborious journey into a labour of love. While a gold medal in February 2014 shall be a hard-earned one, there is no question that the friendships forged among these Furies shall make it an experience worth treasuring for a lifetime.

The Maria Sharapova of women’s hockey

While professional women’s hockey has never marketed the sex appeal of any of its athletes, it is an area that may be forced to acknowledge quickly. 2012 CWHL Draft prospect, Russian national team member, and part time model Zoya Polunina may quickly become the Maria Sharapova of women’s ice hockey.

While it is unfair to single out any one player, Polunina has a modeling background (something that Cassie Campbell, one of the first popular women’s hockey players of the modern era, also had), and male fans are quick to identify the most attractive athletes. Based on the influence of the internet and the sites that are dedicating to featuring the sexiest athletes (male and female) in sports, it is merely a question of time before Polunina is recognized as one of the most attractive ice hockey players in the world. For many male fans, they would state that she definitely follows in the footsteps of fellow Russian athletes Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova.

Even in the 1920s, sex appeal played a role in women’s ice hockey. An annual ice hockey tournament in Western Canada in which teams competed to win the Alpine Cup had one of its players win a local beauty contest prior to the tournament.

There have been many amateur women’s hockey groups that have used calendars and sex appeal to gain attention for fund raising efforts. A group of ladies in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (home to some of the greatest winter athletes in North America) have done a calendar which featured nudity. The Ice-o-topes in Vancouver have done a calendar in which the players were in bra and panties while on the ice to help raise funds for charity.

In the budding history of professional women’s ice hockey in North America, there has never been any publicized disruption in the locker rooms of its franchises based on ego and/or popularity. While men’s sports belong to thirty team leagues where one player can easily be shipped elsewhere, women’s ice hockey tends to be a close knit community of very few teams. The moment one team is poisoned over a player’s ego; working relationships among players may be fractured beyond repair.

Eventually, the time will come when an attractive player will manipulate fans and media to increase her popularity; while promoting herself to such a degree that will be beyond anyone’s control. The issue is how an organization would handle it.

A harsh reality in women’s sports is that sex sells with male fans. Athletes such as Danica Patrick, Lindsay Vonn, Lolo Jones, Paula Creamer, Sue Bird, and Hope Solo captured the hearts and minds of male fans with more than their talents. While the astute male sports fan would be quick to acknowledge the hard work and dedication that these athletes have undergone to be the best in their sport, the sex appeal of a female athlete has been a key factor in determining if the more average fan will retain interest.

There is no question that the realm of male sports has had their own athletes create an impact on popular culture (while possibly being labeled as sex symbols). Athletes such as Derek Jeter, Tim Tebow and David Beckham have become icons for their athletic skill, fashion sense, good looks, and overall likeability with fans and media alike. The first star in the CWHL that has truly gained similar status is Tessa Bonhomme.

Although looks may definitely help in attracting fans, talent and character are what will keep the real fans. Tessa Bonhomme has handled her growing popularity and girl next door image with grace and dignity. While more male hockey fans will identify Tessa Bonhomme with Battle of the Blades than her time with Ohio State, the class that she exudes results in popularity which appeals to fans of both sexes, and all age groups. An example for elite athletes to follow.