Years before starring at the University of Wisconsin, Sarah Nurse remembers being told she didn’t have a future in hockey.
“One of my dad’s friends completely brushed me off and was like, ‘You’re never going to get anywhere playing hockey. There’s nowhere for you to go,'” says Nurse, a fourth-year forward with the Canadian national women’s team.
“My dad was always the one to say, ‘There are places that you can go if you want this and it’s your passion. You can go to the Olympics.'”
The 23-year-old Nurse, an Olympic silver medallist this past February, is hoping there are plenty of dads like Roger Nurse in the stands Saturday afternoon in her hometown Hamilton to celebrate Girls’ Hockey Day.
Nurse and Canadian teammates Natalie Spooner and Renata Fast will be special guests of the Ontario Hockey League’s Hamilton Bulldogs, who for the second straight year heeded the call of Hockey Canada and partnered with local minor hockey associations for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Girls’ Hockey Weekend to help grow the women’s game at all levels.
In its ninth year, WGHW is a global opportunity for girls to try hockey, help grow the game and unite through grassroots programming.
At FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum), about 1,500 players are expected to attend, with a bantam AA game scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET on Saturday, followed by a 1 p.m. midget game between the Stoney Creek Sabres and Hamilton Hawks that will be televised on Cable 14 ahead of the Bulldogs-Peterborough Petes OHL contest at 4 p.m.
Prior to the junior game, members of the Sabres and Hawks will stand along the respective blue-lines of the Bulldogs and Petes as Nurse, Spooner and Fast — who play together with the Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League — take part in the ceremonial faceoff. They will also sign autographs during the day.
“One of our goals is to help the Toronto Furies gain more exposure in the Hamilton area,” says Bulldogs marketing co-ordinator Robin Schneider, “as they are the closest professional women’s team to the city.”
Earlier in the day, three or four minor teams will be involved in a 60-minute Skills Surge session — the signature event of World Girls’ Hockey Weekend — with a Bulldogs coach and two players demonstrating each drill provided by Hockey Canada and available to all Canadian minor hockey associations and their teams by accessing the organization’s app.
The Bulldogs will showcase female hockey throughout the OHL game, including video interviews from two-time Olympic medallist Laura Fortino, retired defenceman Geraldine Heaney, Fast and Nurse.
‘Blown away by the experience’
“We’ve probably put in over 200 hours from July until now,” says Bulldogs group sales manager Justin Ismael, whose conversation more than a year ago with Stoney Creek girls’ minor hockey executive and midget coach Brian Cleary led to the inaugural Girls’ Hockey Day in Hamilton.
“I’ve had a couple of counterparts from teams [across the OHL] ask what our blueprint is and how we executed this event. Seeing the girls and how excited they were talking about their game and then playing a game [last year] was special. Everyone was blown away by the experience, so we wanted to make it bigger and better.”
I think the visitbility of the national women’s team and CWHL is incredible, and there’s a passion and drive that little girls believe there’s a next step for them.— Canadian national women’s hockey forward Sarah Nurse
According to Hockey Canada, 51,700 girls registered across the country in 2002, a number that increased by six per cent the following season and rose to 73,791 by the 2006-07 campaign. From 2016 to 2017, the number of World Girls’ Hockey Weekend events jumped by 57 to 332 and participants by over 6,000 (15,834 to 22,184) with more than 23,000 registered by Oct. 2.
Nurse, who played boys’ hockey “until [age] 11 or 12,” believes women’s hockey turned a corner in Canada following the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where the home side blanked the United States 2-0 in the gold-medal game.
“That game showed how talented and skilled women’s hockey players are,” says Nurse, who scored 76 goals and 137 points in 149 collegiate games. “After Vancouver, I think people thought [women’s hockey] is here to stay.
“Now, with working on televising the Four Nations Cup and world championship, I think the visibility of the national women’s team and CWHL is incredible, and there’s a passion and drive that little girls believe there’s a next step for them.”