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Canadian hockey legend Cassie Campbell-Pascall has long played a key role in elevating women’s presence in Canada’s national sport.
The two-time Olympic champion, six-time world champion and the first woman to provide colour commentary on Hockey Night in Canada says while the landscape has improved for women, progress has been slow. The pandemic also pushed women’s hockey to the backburner, she added.
“It’s disappointing that for me, still years later, we still don’t have true a professional women’s league. You know, we’ve had leagues … but by no means do I think we’re at a level that these young players deserve,” Campbell-Pascall said during the Perspectives podcast.
In the fifth episode of Perspectives – which widens the lens of the Pandenomics podcast beyond the pandemic’s impacts to include bigger-picture issues and topics – Campbell-Pascall and Scotiabank’s director of hockey sponsorship Lisa Ferkul weigh in on the importance of making Canada’s national sport more diverse and inclusive.
That’s the aim of Scotiabank’s new hockey for all initiative, launched in October, which will contribute $2-million over 12 months towards programs focused on increasing diversity among community and grassroots hockey organizations across Canada.
“Research tells us that the lack of inclusivity within hockey actually does stem from financial inaccessibility and absence of familiarity/relatability, and then this notion of intimidation from a longstanding culture of discrimination,” said Ferkul. “These are issues that prevent the game we all love from being truly Canadian and reflective of today's society.”
Stephen Meurice: There’s no denying how important hockey has been to the way Canadians see themselves. It’s our game, historically the product of long winters and frozen ponds played by tough farm boys and eventually many tough and skilled women. The heroes and stories are many and continue to play a central role in the nation’s character, but has hockey kept up with Canada’s evolution into a diverse multicultural society? Is the culture of hockey resistant to the kind of change that’s needed to make it reflect the current realities of this country? How can we overcome that resistance so that everyone has a chance to enjoy this most Canadian of sports. Welcome to the Perspectives podcast. I’m your host, Stephen Meurice. I’m joined today to talk about diversity in hockey by a hockey legend. Cassie Campbell-Pascall is a 2-time Olympic gold medalist, Canada Sports Hall of Fame inductee, a member of the Order of Canada, and a celebrated broadcaster who was the first woman to do colour commentary on Hockey Night in Canada. Thanks so much for joining us, Cassie.
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Thanks, Stephen and Lisa.
Stephen Meurice: I’m also joined by Lisa Ferkul, director of hockey sponsorship at Scotiabank. Lisa is an active member of the sponsorship marketing in sports industries. Among other positions, she is Vice Chair of the Sponsorship Marketing Council of Canada and has committee roles of the Greater Toronto Hockey League Community Pillar and the Black North Initiative Sports and Entertainment Division. She was recognized by the Toronto Star in 2018 as one of the most influential women in hockey. Lisa, thanks for being here.
Lisa Ferkul: Thanks for having me.
Stephen Meurice: Cassie, can you tell us what hockey looked like when you first started playing as a kid? I mean, I guess at that point diversity meant that women or young girls were gradually being allowed to play hockey maybe instead of ringette at the time. What were the challenges that you and other young women faced coming up in what was probably a bit of a boy’s or a man’s world?
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Yeah, I think, you know, I think for me as a kid, hockey just looked like a lot of fun, you know, just getting to be on the ice, having a hockey stick and, you know, hockey equipment on and being like my older brother, right? That’s the way I remember seeing it, and I also remember having to ask my parents a few times before they would let me play, and it was simply because girls didn’t really play at that time and they were worried about what parents were going to say, and I actually started playing hockey in the United States and I had to play with the boys because they didn’t have a girls league, so, you know, my parents in a protective kind of way were sort of thinking or steering me in a different direction just because it wasn’t really the sport that young girls played, and I remember a girl on my brother’s team, her name was Jennifer Minkus, and she played, and she was like my last argument. Well, Jennifer plays and, you know, our families were really close and that was sort of, I think, when the light bulb went on for my parents and they were like, yeah, Jennifer does play and she’s really good, but I, you know, I remember getting half dressed and showing up a little bit later than everybody else and, you know, heading into the dressing room it was all boys and, you know, always staying half dressed to leave. But, from a kid’s perspective, I’ll be honest with you, like, they didn’t know I was a girl until the end of the year when, you know, we had a swimming party, and I think the kids, we didn’t care. We just wanted to play, you know, but I think sometimes other issues came in through parents where it just wasn’t a generation where young girls played and so you’d hear different negative things from that, but I just remember having fun as a kid, and I was fortunate that, you know, my parents did support me, and my brother supported me, and I could be just like him.
Stephen Meurice: So, how old were you when you started playing on a girls’ team?
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: I was probably about 11, I would think, 10 or 11, when I moved back to Canada. I moved back to Brampton and played for the Brampton Canadettes, which, you know, ironically and luckily was the biggest girl’s hockey association in the world at the time for me, and I moved back to a perfect location and then just never looked back, you know? That was the April Easter tournament that they were known for and just, you know, playing the Wildcats and Scarborough and Mississauga and, you know, we only had about 4 or 5 teams in the GTA area, which, you know, there’s so many teams there now, but, you know, it was nice to be able to play against all young girls.
Stephen Meurice: For sure. I have a daughter who played rep hockey who played with Lisa at Scarborough and played against and usually got killed by the Brampton Canadettes. I have to say that even now, and that was a few years ago, I had a son who played rep hockey, as well, played for the Toronto Aces, even 4 or 5 years ago, hockey, like, it was still a pretty white place to be. I’m guessing that was probably even more the case when you first started out, and Brampton is a very, very multicultural part of Toronto, a very diverse part of Toronto. Was any of that diversity reflected at the rink?
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Not particularly. You know, I think when I was growing up in Brampton it wasn’t as diverse as it is now, and, you know, but I do remember one friend and player, her name was Nicky Maynard, and she was a black player and she was amazing. She was a defenseman, and I also played soccer with her, as well. She was a remarkable athlete, but I kinda do really remember her family being the only diverse family, but I also just remember her as being a friend and being an amazing hockey player, and I think, again, you know, in the women’s game, we accepted everybody, you know, and I think that’s something that the men’s game can probably learn from, you know. We just accept everybody, we want more people involved in women’s hockey, we want the game to grow, and Nicky Maynard is the first one that comes to mind as being, you know, really sort of from, you know, a diverse group, and she was really a leader in that category.
Stephen Meurice: I guess almost 2 different strains. Like, for a long time, the focus would have been on growing the women’s game in Canada, and I think probably a lot of progress has been made, and then there are other issues. Maybe we’ll come back to sort of the issues around, you know, people of color and different underrepresented communities, but what would you, how would you describe the state, maybe we’ll start with you, Lisa, at that sort of minor league level, the state of women’s or girls’ hockey at the younger ages. Scotiabank has been involved with hockey for a very long time, so I’m sure you’re familiar with the state of play.
Lisa Ferkul: Yeah, you know, pre pandemic the data was telling us that actually girls’ hockey was the one area of hockey that was on the rise. I recently read an MLC Foundation research report, though, that said that, unfortunately, post pandemic and now, 1 in 3 girls aged 6 to 29 are actually like less interested in sport across Ontario than ever before. As Canada’s hockey bank, Scotiabank is committed to girls’ hockey. We have been, Cassie has been our poster child for Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest since, gees, Cass, 2006 when we started with Ottawa with the Senators back in the day, and now we’ve scaled the program across all of our NHL partnerships and that program really gives girls aged 7 to 14 an opportunity to learn the life skills off the ice and then on the ice here from their mentors like Cassie Campbell-Pascall and Natalie Spooner. Going back to the pandemic, we also launched, we had to pivot that program. We couldn’t have on ice training, so we developed Scotiabank Rising Teammates, Scotia Rising Teammates, where Cassie and a number of the girls on Team Canada, we’re proud partners of Team Canada, and Hockey Canada were mentoring these girls and encouraging them to stay in the sport and keeping with it because of all of the wonderful life lessons that hockey can benefit our youth.
Stephen Meurice: Great, and how does that sort of transfer or translate into the higher levels of Hockey Canada? What is the state of women’s hockey at the higher levels? I mean, I know there’s still controversy with professional leagues and what’s going on with that and if they’re NHL or not, and, Lisa, you’re wearing the Players Association jersey there. Can you give us a little bit of a sense of what’s going on at sort of the elite level of women’s hockey right now?
Lisa Ferkul: Well, we just won gold, right, Cass? We’re the best in the world right now, Team Canada, at the Women’s Worlds.
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Well, I think the rivalry between Canada and the US over the years has really put women’s hockey on the map, and, you know, now we have Team Finland that’s come in and, you know, upset Canada, you know, a few years, the world championships prior and were able to win a silver medal, and some would say even a gold medal because it was a bit of a controversial finish, but, you know, I think the parity in the women’s game from 1 to 3 is as strong as it’s ever been, and I think the parity from, you know, 4 to 12 is the strongest that it’s ever been internationally. You know, I can say that, you know, I retired in 2006 and a couple of my first projects or first fights, if you will, were let’s get women in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and let’s have a professional women’s league and, you know, I was part of the Chair of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League that folded and watched it grow and watched it struggle and watched it grow and watched it struggle, but I, you know, I’m of the belief that in order for us to be successful, you know, we do need the NHL branding behind us and their infrastructure, and it just really makes sense, and a similar model to the WNBA but something that is probably not as big to start, you know, something a little smaller, and, you know, so it’s disappointing for me that still years later, you know, we still don’t have a true professional women’s league and, you know, we’ve had leagues, you know, like I can say that the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and the NWHL, who’ve called themselves professional but by no means do I think we’re at a level of professional that these young players deserve and, you know, having a rink full time to put their equipment in, having, you know, access to physiotherapists on a full-time basis, you know, having access to sticks and tape on a full-time basis. You know, these are minor, minor things that even young midget boy’s hockey teams have access to, and, you know, I think the current player is just pushing for more. They want more, and it’s not necessarily about a financial benefit, although being paid to play would be great. I think the players predominantly are fighting for a proper infrastructure, you know, that allows them to have a professional arena to play in and call home on a regular basis, you know, things like that, so from that standpoint I think it’s really frustrating that we don’t have a professional women’s league yet, and I know for those of us that have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to push for it, it becomes frustrating at times, but I do believe it’s going to happen, and I do believe the right thing for women’s hockey will happen because it’s a great sport and because we have great people within it.
Stephen Meurice: What are the barriers to that happening now? I mean, it’s been years that people like you have been pushing for it. What’s standing in the way?
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Well, I think Covid. Covid was a big, you know, big barrier for a lot of women’s sports, you know, a lot of professional men’s leagues lost money, you know, that’s just the reality, right? Not having their fans there, not being able to play a full schedule, and so to some degree I think women’s hockey gets pushed to the back burner. Okay, well, we’ll get to it, but now we have all these other big problems within our own brand, if you will, within our own leagues that, you know, we got pushed, I think, further down the list, which is unfortunate, but I think that’s what happened during the pandemic, you know. As our healthcare workers were fighting tirelessly every single day to do the best jobs that they can, we still had marginalized groups that were continually now being even more marginalized and, you know, until we kind of get through this pandemic 100% I still think that it will be a struggle for things like women’s hockey to continue to build that professional platform.
Stephen Meurice: You mentioned the other marginalized communities. I think maybe we will talk about that a little bit. Lisa, I’ll come back to you in a second because I know Scotiabank is giving a lot in that space, particularly right now, but I’ll talk first about I guess maybe about like sort of the culture of hockey at least at it gets sort of passed down through the NHL as the biggest league in the world. Has it, how much do you think, Cassie, culture of the NHL gets in the way of greater inclusion of marginalized communities, and so, you know, you look at the first person under contract to come out as gay, he was a Predator, I think, now playing in Edmonton, like, it’s kind of crazy that the first time that happens is in 2021, and, you know, I’d say people of color are still underrepresented in the ranks of the NHL. What’s your assessment of the state of diversity in the NHL in terms of setting the tone for everybody else below?
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Well, I think we need to be better, right, and, you know, I think we need to have people from more diverse backgrounds involved and leading the way because, you know, who am I to say how certain people grow up in different cultures and different backgrounds. Who am I, other than to be a leader and be there and support them and include them and all those types of things, but who am I to be the expert on how we get more and more diverse groups into hockey, you know? I think we need more diverse leadership. I think it starts there, and we also need people like myself and Lisa at Scotiabank to be supportive and to be like, okay, we’re in this together. How do we, you know, help us make this better, and I think that’s really important is to make sure that we have the proper people in the leadership groups to understand what the different cultures go through with, you know, not being able or not being included in hockey. Why is that, you know? Explain to us why is that. How do we make it better? I think if we all start dealing with these issues in a solution based way, I think we’re all going to be better for it, and if our leadership groups, you know, look outside of their own leadership groups for help and for encouragement and for leadership and all those types of things, I think we’ll all be better off as a society if we start looking more at things as a solution based mindset, right? Not what the issues. Let’s find the solutions, you know. Let’s spend less time, you know, talking about the problems and more time fixing the problems, and I think it’s leaders like Lisa who have done that and Scotiabank who have done that and tried to do that and bringing people in and bringing, you know, experts in around them, and I think that’s what great leaders do is they bring people around them that know more about those situations than they do.
Lisa Ferkul: Yeah, thanks, Cass. I’ll jump in, Stephen, if it’s okay. You know, research tells us that the lack of inclusivity within hockey actually does stem from financial inaccessibility and absence of familiarity/relatability and then this notion of an intimidation from a longstanding culture of discrimination. These are issues that prevent the game we all love from being truly Canadian and reflective of today’s society, but as the sport continues to evolve, so has our commitment to making the game more inclusive, and so about a year ago we started on our journey to evolve our kid’s community hockey strategy and the research clearly told us that not only did we have a place of equity, we’re coming from a position of strength because of programs like Scotiabank Girls HockeyFest, because of longstanding programs like Project North where we work in collaboration with a charity to donate equipment to the youth in Canada and Nunavut of Canada’s north and really introducing them to the game and, you know, hockey for all is our answer and our commitment to supporting change within the game because we’re not, we’re no longer hiding behind it, like, we love the game, we want it to flourish, we want it to grow, and so hockey for all is Scotiabank’s answer to that commitment.
Stephen Meurice: So, what does that look like in practice, the different, I mean, hockey for all is the new initiative that Scotiabank has launched just this fall, just recently. How has that evolved from what Scotiabank’s various hockey related programs looked like before?
Lisa Ferkul: Correct. So, it involves a $2 million financial commitment, a financial pivot, of existing philanthropy dollars to be steered towards these programs and platforms that attack the issues from 2 pillars, the financial aspect and then the cultural aspect and, you know, I’ll start with the cultural. A lot of it is about education. Cassie was just talking about education, like, we need to bring in the right people that are going to do, you know, the unconscious bias training. We’re working with the Hockey Diversity Alliance and actually Cassie’s other employer, SportsNet, to introduce and launch an education program working with some of the top academics in this space in our country so, you know, we’re really excited about that. From an LGBT+ standpoint, we’re working with You Can Play, and we’re going to be offering education to our employees at Scotiabank on those similar topics to teach them about, you know, just educating them on what it means to be inclusive and accepting of all.
Stephen Meurice: What kind of a response do you get from the communities? Are you finding that there are lots of people who want to play in those places among those communities? Is it, does it make you optimistic about the future of hockey when you see the response that you get?
Lisa Ferkul: You know what, it really does, because, to Cassie’s point, leaders and like, whether it be talent and players like Cassie or sponsors, I think we all have, I think we all have, dare I say it, an obligation to not fix things, because you don’t want people to feel, without judgement, like, we just all want to recognize that we want to grow and evolve the game. We’re not saying there’s anything bad about it, because it does teach camaraderie, teamwork, all these wonderful qualities that actually translate to life skills off the ice, right, and make better adults and better professionals. I really, I have to believe we’re optimistic.
Stephen Meurice: One last question for you, Cassie. Are a long and illustrious career, what is it about the sport that makes you want to not walk away from those difficulties but try to address them and fix them so that the sport is better for other people?
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Well, because I just love it, you know, and I think that the positives of hockey far outweigh the negative. You know, what kids and people can learn from the sport of hockey as far as respect and responsibility and hard work and teamwork and, you know, all those characteristics that can make you happy and successful that you can learn as a young kid that take you on into being, you know, a great leader and a great adult, so that’s kind of what keeps me coming back, and the fact that I do believe that, you know, even in such a down moment like we’ve seen recently that it can create change. It is just a sport that’s powerful enough, it’s fun enough, it is great enough to create change, and I think, you know, you kinda can’t let those incidences bring you down, and you have to continue to see the strength and what the sport actually does, and the fact that, you know, through Kyle Beach’s story, for example, change will be created and hockey will be greater because of the change that’s created, and that’s the kind of mindset that I keep thinking, that even when we’re going to have negative moments in hockey that we can still come together as a group of leaders and create change that betters the sport but also betters the communities around us.
Lisa Ferkul: Well said.
Stephen Meurice: Okay. Yes, it was well said, and I think we’ll end it on that note. I want to thank you both. I’ve been speaking with Cassie Campbell-Pascall and with Lisa Ferkul, director of hockey sponsorships at Scotiabank. Thank you both for coming. It’s been a great conversation.
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Thank you.
Lisa Ferkul: Thanks for having us. Thanks, Cass.
Cassie Campbell-Pascall: Thanks! Talk soon.
Stephen Meurice: Thanks for listening to the Perspectives podcast. If you like what you heard, please subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your podcasts. See you next time.