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Beginnings of women’s hockey in Collingwood tied up in mystery

A photo depicting a team of 12 female hockey players in corsetted Victorian-era dresses came with very little information about the women pictured
A photo uncovered by staff at the Collingwood Museum depicts a group of 12 women holding wooden hockey sticks in front of Collingwood's pine street rink in the late 1890s.

Local female hockey players have been fighting for their right to play since the birth of the game, but despite all the push back, they never stopped playing.

Melissa Shaw, museum supervisor at the Collingwood Museum, spoke with podcast host Ken Maher about the little-known beginnings of women’s hockey in Collingwood on a recent episode of Stories From Another Day

“Women’s hockey hasn’t always been top of mind at the international, national or even local levels and has taken a backseat — maybe even a space on a roof rack — for more than a century,” said Shaw. 

Women's hockey made its long-awaited debut at the Olympic Winter Games in 1998, however, a photo uncovered in the Collingwood Museum’s collection provides an important piece of evidence that women were playing hockey in Collingwood as early as the late 1890s. 

“The first time I saw the photograph of the Collingwood Ladies Hockey Club, I was immediately hooked,” said Shaw. 

The photo depicts a group of 12 unnamed women in dresses holding wooden hockey sticks in front of Collingwood's pine street rink between 1898 and 1899. And not the loose-fitting dresses of the 1920s, Shaw noted, but Victorian Era, tight-fitting dresses — with corsets and all. 

“These women must have been superheroes of their time,” said Shaw. “And certainly, they retain this status in the eyes of museum staff.”

The first-ever recorded instance of women playing hockey in Canada was on February 11, 1891, when a reporter for The Ottawa Citizen caught a glimpse of a women’s hockey game. 

With no names and no uniforms, these 12 women remain the only documented female hockey players in the Collingwood Museum’s extensive collection. And, as Shaw said, the only indication of their purpose is the wooden hockey stick that each player holds in her hands. 

“How could the only photograph of women’s hockey be missed?” she said. 

According to Shaw, the picture was donated to the Huron Institute by one of the players, Helena Elworthy Phipps, in 1925. Upon further digging, Shaw learned that a list of the early hockey players was recorded at one time, but the names became disassociated from the photograph following a fire at the museum in 1963. 

Only a few years ago, museum staff found the handwritten list of names on the back of another old photograph, but the writing wasn’t quite as well preserved. Helena was one of three sisters on the team, most of which was made up of Collingwood’s well-to-do families, which Shaw said was likely the reason for their involvement in the leisure activity in the first place. 

“We’re still missing some first and last names, but we are on our way to reassembling the members of the Collingwood Ladies Hockey Club,” said Shaw. 

While it is long overdue, women's hockey is finally starting to get the recognition it deserves in the area. 

In 2017, a local volunteer, Ivy Martin, helped start the Collingwood Girls Hockey Association and over the past five years, Collingwood’s girls' hockey has seen exponential growth.

Martin didn't start playing hockey herself until she was in her 30s. She joined a mini-league at the Collingwood outdoor rink on Friday nights and took over the group the following year, creating the Collingwood Knights Women’s Hockey Club. Her newfound interest in the game prompted her youngest daughter to express an interest as well, but there was nowhere locally for her to do so. 

So, during the following winter, with the help of a group of volunteers, Martin started the Collingwood Girls Hockey Association. Since then, it has grown from two teams and 30 girls to over 170 girls, 10 teams and 65 volunteers and staff. 

In April, Martin was named one of this year’s recipients of the Order of Collingwood for her accomplishment. 

“The sheer number of girls playing hockey in this community, their ability to improve, excel and draw even more people together is what drives me to continue volunteering,” said Martin in response to the award. 

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Maddie Johnson

About the Author: Maddie Johnson

Maddie Johnson is an early career journalist working in financial, small business, adventure and lifestyle reporting. She studied Journalism at the University of King's College, and worked in Halifax, Malta and Costa Rica before settling in Collingwood
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