She Shoots, She Scores

Guest post from Marie Sawa, a hockey and ringette athlete from Toronto, ON.

Nothing breaks the ice (pun intended) with strangers than letting them know you are a badass hockey player. The questions and comments that follow are usually along the lines of: “You mean on ice?”, “Do girls hit?”, “What position?”, “I can’t even skate.”

But hockey isn’t the only sport I play on ice.  In fact, my love affair with hockey came later in life.  I actually hated hockey. Hours spent at the rink watching my two older brothers, and Saturday nights being forced to watch Hockey Night in Canada on our one television, left me with a sour taste.

Photo credit: Fredericton Ringette Association

I played ringette. For those that don’t know, ringette is a team sport that is played on ice, with the same general concept as hockey – score on the net. Instead of a puck and a curved stick, ringette is played with a straight stick and a blue rubber ring.  It was the only real option for girls when I was young. There weren’t many girl’s hockey leagues in my area.

I played ringette from the age of four until I was fifteen. At the height of my career I was on the ice five days a week.  The game afforded me many opportunities most athletes don’t get. At twelve I travelled to Finland, Sweden and the Soviet Union to represent Canada and play friendly games that promoted the sport.  At fourteen, I played with a Central Ontario team that competed at the Canada Winter Games.  That same year I was invited to the Team Ontario training camp.

Playing at that level gets you noticed.  I, along with many of my teammates, was being approached about switching to hockey.  Women’s hockey had come along way while were busy playing ringette.  There were many more teams and leagues sprouting up and grassroots women’s hockey was growing.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Marie Sawa (top row, 5th position from the left)

Eventually a large number of us changed sports seeing that there were more opportunities in hockey.  Chances for scholarships, world championships and a professional league meant we could go further and play longer.

I like a good challenge and switching sports has been the lifelong challenge I was looking for.  My skating ability and on-ice vision transferred nicely, but stickhandling and slap shots remain difficult for someone who didn’t learn those skills growing up.

For two years I played competitively, but my hockey career suffered when I had ACL surgery to repair a bad soccer injury.  The timing of my knee injury meant I sat out my last year of hockey before university and the school I went to didn’t have a women’s hockey program. So, I didn’t play competitively until after I graduated.

While I haven’t represented Canada abroad or competed at the national level, adult hockey has afforded me some intangible gifts.  I’ve met some of my best friends, been embraced by a supportive community of like-minded athletes, and found a healthy outlet to exercise and work out my stress.  I have won a number of league and tournament titles, as well as two provincial championships, but it’s the challenge of being a better player that motivates me every time I hit the ice.

It was one of my hockey friends that got me back on the ice as a ringette player.  She asked me to participate in a charity game and I thought it might be nice to see if I still had some skills after a fifteen year absence.  I fell back in love with the sport that started me on the ice.

I now play both sports. I love that all body types, sexes (yes men play ringette), skill levels, ages and sexual orientations are welcome on the ice. Body diversity is celebrated because every team needs people in different roles and positions.  I embrace my role as offensive pest in hockey.  My size is great when I am trying to screen a goalie.  My role in ringette is the exact opposite – I keep people away from the net.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Marie Sawa (centre position)

Hockey will always come first for me, but I am always keen to jump on the ice when a ringette team is short a player. It means that I am on the ice a lot – but I love it.  I even recently played in an alumni game celebrating 50 years of my home ringette association.  Switching between the two is somewhat easy, but there are some challenges when it comes to the key differences in equipment and rules.

Equipment

Making the off ice switch with the equipment is fairly easy.  Most of the equipment is the same; the exceptions are sticks and masks.  Ringette sticks are straight, with no blade. Like hockey sticks, they come at a variety of price points.  Personal preference for price, weight and flex usually factor into what stick you use for either sport.

Because ringette sticks are straight, the masks are different from hockey masks.  The cage patterns are closer together to protect from the stick being able to poke though.

Outside of my stick and helmet cage, I can use all of my hockey equipment.  There are ringette specific pants that are long.  If you wear them, you do have to wear a girdle instead of hockey pants.

When buying equipment for either sport, female hockey and ringette players generally run into the same issue – equipment is made for men.  So, when you find equipment that fits, it is generally too long somewhere.  A lot of women have problems finding pants that fit at the waist, but don’t go over your knees.  I have the hardest time with shoulder pads.  If they are big enough to accommodate my bust, they are way too long in the arms.

As female hockey grows in North America, so does the female specific equipment selection.  Pro Hockey Life stores have a large selection, carrying jills (female jocks), compression under garments, pants and shoulder pads.  The female equipment is carried in sizes XS-XL with extended sizes available in pants (ladies XS-XXL/men’s XS-XXXL). Skates typically come in a large range of sizes up to men’s size 13 and widths C, D, E, EE, and EEE.

Hockey and ringette players are funny about their equipment. Players come in all shapes and sizes and so do equipment alterations!  Everyone has a way of making their equipment work for them.  I’ve seen women taping things together, cutting padding out of pants, tailoring their shoulder pads, and sewing panels in pants. Once you’ve customized your equipment the uniqueness of it becomes almost a badge of honour. Everyone and everything is accepted…as long as the referee doesn’t deem it unsafe.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of Marie Sawa

I have the most challenges switching between the rules and strategy of the two sports on ice. The rule differences are quite complicated. In ringette, players must pass over the blue lines and stay out of the goalie crease. Only three players from each team are allowed in the offensive and defensive ends at any time. Similar to lacrosse or basketball, there is a shot clock which only allows for 30 seconds of possession at a time.  There are no faceoffs; one team is awarded a free ring possession based on the preceding call.

The area I get into the most trouble is penalties. Both sports are considered non-contact, but I find hockey to be more physical because possession changes so often.  I am caught somewhere between not physical enough in hockey and too physical in ringette.

Because possession lasts longer in ringette, the game tends to have more strategy and plays.  As a casual player sometimes I am a little lost out there on the ice.

Getting Started

Getting started in either sport is fairly simple – locate your local organization and inquire about beginner adult programs.  Most municipalities also have learn-to-skate programs (Learn to Skate Canada, Learn to Skate USA).  My other suggestion would be to ask a friend.  People who play ice sports love their sports and are happy to share that love with anyone willing to learn.

I feel very fortunate to have played at the highest levels of both of these sports.  Like any team sport, I’ve learned what it is like to cooperate with others, to win and lose humbly, to push my body to achieve more and most of all to have fun!

About the Author

born-to-reign-athletics-marie-sawa-hockeyMarie Sawa lives in Toronto with her husband Scott and dog Jag. She has been an athlete since her dad put her on skis before she could walk. She grew up Highland dancing, skiing, and playing soccer, ringette and hockey. At university she tended net for the University of Waterloo soccer team. She currently plays wing for the Leaside Wildcats senior women’s hockey team and substitutes on various ringette teams.

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