After retiring from teaching, Marney LeBlanc works to share her love of hockey

When Marney LeBlanc retired from teaching in 2011, she knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“In Cape Breton, where I grew up, there were sports for boys, but there wasn’t anything for ladies or girls,” remembers LeBlanc. “I never played sports when I was growing up. I started playing ringette in my mid-30s. I was in my late 50s when I retired, and I decided that I wanted to start some pickup hockey for ladies.”

LeBlanc is not the type to dream idly, and eight years later she has a rotating group of skaters on the ice three times a week every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 10:30 in the morning at Cole Harbour Place. Anyone who plays pickup hockey knows a group lives and dies on the reliability of its organizer. And LeBlanc is nothing if not an organizer.

“I register ladies within the first two hours after the game’s over. If there’s any spots left over, there will be some men who request to play. I’ll fill those in according to who was the first request, who was the second request,” says LeBlanc. “The men who come here, if they don’t pass the puck, they’re not invited back. They know, if they’re going to play, that the focus is women’s hockey. And they don’t come here to take over the game.”

LeBlanc’s story of wanting to play hockey as a child but finding it more or less closed to girls, is not unique. Most of the women I spoke to for this story echoed it. It’s not that the women’s game doesn’t have a history. Isobel Stanley, the daughter of Lord Stanley of Preston, whose trophy you might have heard of, was a pioneer in the women’s game. But that doesn’t change the fact that women’s hockey has historically been an afterthought to the men’s game.

Men’s hockey, after all, has been an Olympic sport since 1920. It took 78 years for women to finally take the ice on the world stage in Nagano at the 1998 Olympics. Our collective image of what a hockey player looks like is default male. Not coincidentally, EA’s popular NHL video games only added the option to create female skaters in 2012, three years after male players could create their own avatars, and even then only because of female gamers petitioning for the option.

In the interest of maintaining what remains of my journalistic integrity, I should mention I tend goal for Marney’s group fairly often. The impetus for writing this piece came from my own “hockey players are men” moment. Looking at a group of mid-40s to 60s women walking out of Cole Harbour Place, I had the stunningly idiotic thought “They don’t look like hockey players.”

And this was after literal hours of watching these women play hockey, which is, of course, the only criteria for being (and looking like) a hockey player. The thing is, nobody, not even Amy Walsh, executive director of Hockey Nova Scotia, is immune from this attitude.

“A lot of people don’t think I play hockey because they have a certain stereotype of what a female hockey player looks and acts like, and I don’t necessarily fit that mold,” says Walsh. “They’re like, ‘You play hockey?”

Walsh herself played on boys’ teams growing up in New Brunswick. It wasn’t until she moved to Ontario at 13 that she was able to join
an all-girls team. She went on to play at the university level, and
in Switzerland.

Just before she began her tenure with Hockey Nova Scotia this past year, it was announced the province would be hosting the Women’s World Championships in 2020. One of the insights Walsh has gained during a career in sport development is that role models matter. Girls need to see people like them on the ice. They need to see a future in hockey.

“Right now, girls and women make up 26% of the hockey players in Nova Scotia. And nationally girls and women only make up 17%. And only 5% of hockey coaches are female,” says Walsh.

“We had a huge boost in participation rates when we hosted
the women’s worlds in 2004. But the stigma exists still that it is a male’s game.”

One avenue of development has been the shift to all-female minor hockey. In Halifax, there are now two all-female associations, with a third in the Annapolis Valley. Cristina Tollefsen, a relative newcomer to Marney’s group, feels her daughter will have a chance to develop as a player without having to shoulder the burden of decades of stigma.

“I think the all-girl space is good. She doesn’t know what it’s like to have people not pass to you because you’re a girl,” says Tollefsen. “She really doesn’t know what it feels like to want to do something and know that you can’t because you’re a girl. I think it’s magical that the girls program exists at her level, and that Marney’s group exists for people who are maybe 50 or 60 and always wanted to play.”

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Tollefsen had always wanted to play, but when she was growing up in Winnipeg, girls played ringette, not hockey. In 2010, when she was living in Dartmouth, she decided to rectify that error.

“When I was little, as far as I was aware, girls didn’t play. Now I know that girls played in some places, but not in the universe I moved in,” says Tollefsen. “I took a lot of power-skating lessons.

There was power-skating for women being offered by Pete Beliveau, the coach of the Dalhousie Tigers at the time. Then I learned to talk my way into children’s power-skating. It makes a huge difference, but you have to be willing to have the nerve to be like, ‘Hey, I would like to join your class even though I’m 40.’”

Tollefsen joined LeBlanc’s group this season, and recognized something different from the frenetic “coulda-made-the-show” pace of the men’s pickups she’d been in.

“I think people play pickup for different reasons,” she says. Some people want to be super competitive. But you can see Marney’s group is looking for people that are wanting to pass and set up the plays and cheer for people on both teams when they succeed. And that’s what I like about hockey.”

Many of the women in LeBlanc’s group are learning to skate for the first time. Some are converted ringette players whose skating is beyond reproach, but are working out the intricacies of stickhandling with a puck instead of a ring. Many are picking up new skills at an age when the popular image has women doing gentle yoga or perhaps smiling gently while lifting small weights. When they step on the ice, they’re fighting two stigmas at once.

“I would rather go out and enjoy a sport; I’d rather burn out than rust out,” says LeBlanc. “The best you can do is just to try to keep up and stay healthy and strong. You got to be the best you can be and work at that.”

The idea that exercise is something reserved for the young is a fallacy Dr. Tina Atkinson would like to do away with, and to that end she is involved with a non-profit called Exercise is Medicine.
“We’re trying to promote that this is normal,” she says. “Exercising and aging well and keeping on exercising is normal, it’s not abnormal, which is probably what a lot of us have grown up with. For all adult people, we should be doing 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week. That doesn’t mean you’re just walking your dog for a stroll around the block, which is awesome too, but it means you’re getting your heart rate up.”

Atkinson never played hockey largely because there was no girls’ hockey when she was younger. She is nevertheless deeply involved in the sport. Since 2011 she has been the team physician for the Halifax Mooseheads. In 2016 she joined Hockey Canada as the Women’s National Development team physician. She believes team sport provides a welcome alternative to the gym.

“The best exercise is the one that you’re going to do,” she says. “For a lot of people it’s team sports. It provides a lot of social benefits. We do know that exercise, in whatever form, is hugely important in mental health.”

According to information on the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine website, just 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, can provide big health benefits. In adults who get that much exercise, risk of type II diabetes goes down 40%, cardiovascular disease decreases by 35%, falls and depression by 30%, among other benefits.

On the ice with LeBlanc’s group, you see women who have played at the university level showing other players the finer points of stickhandling. Converted ringette players go on the ice early and stay late, demonstrating crossover techniques to women who haven’t skated in 20 years, or who are on blades for the first time.
Somewhere in there, Marney is taking it all in, wearing her distinctive bright yellow helmet.

“I’m happy that I’m involved in it. And you know, it feels so good that so many people are having fun. And that’s what it’s all about. Ladies who never played hockey before coming out, enjoying it. And they’ve progressed so well,” says LeBlanc. “I think it’s better than what I had ever anticipated.”

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