From Hayley Wickenheiser to Marie-Philip Poulin to the Lamoureux twins, women’s hockey has always had superstars – but Angela James was one of the originals. The first Canadian woman inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, James cut a swath of destruction through the sport starting in the mid-1980s as a standout with Seneca College in Toronto. She dominated on the international stage, winning four World Championship gold medals from 1990-97 and her 11 goals in the 1990 tournament remains a record to this day.
The latest honor for James has just arrived, as she was one of three people named Distinguished Honorees for the Order of Hockey in Canada, which was established in 2012 to honor contributions to the growth and development of the game.
Joining James in this year’s crop are two other Hockey Hall of Famers: Edmonton Oilers great Kevin Lowe and former Hockey Canada president and NHLer Bill Hay. Coincidentally, it was Hay who presented James with her Hall of Fame plaque when she was inducted into that venerable group back in 2010.
A lot has changed in the women’s game since James was filling nets and she has been very impressed with the evolution of the talent over the years.
“Today’s players are bigger, faster and more skilled than back in the day, like in all of hockey,” she said. “The time spent is greater; you’ve got an athlete today and these women are doing the dryland training and nutrition – it’s so advanced.”
Having said that, today’s women still don’t have the support system commensurate with their skills, something James and her cohort faced in the 1990s.
“Not a lot has changed,” she said. “It was very difficult; a lot of the girls at the national level still had their full-time jobs.”
James was somewhat lucky in that she was able to take a leave of absence from her job to play for the national team, but she also remembers teammates who were teachers and police officers who had to give up their day jobs in order to skate for Canada back then.
James did note however, that initiatives such as Canada’s Own the Podium non-profit organization and various sponsors have injected much-needed capital into the women’s game in recent years.
As for the state of the professional women’s game, James obviously sees room for improvement. The NWHL, which is based in the U.S. but added a franchise in Toronto this past season, had a disastrous experience this year when its bubble plan popped in Lake Placid, forcing the league to cancel its playoffs, which were slated to be broadcast on NBC Sports Network – the first time women’s pro hockey ever would have been shown on a major American cable network.
On the flip side, the sport’s best players have largely been part of the barnstorming Dream Gap tour. Under the Professional Women’s Hockey Players Association (PWHPA) banner, that group has hosted a number of successful events with more planned, but it’s not a league per se. James wants something consistent and concrete.
“It can’t be one-offs, it has to be sustainable,” she said. “We need a pro league, because that filters down to the grassroots and gives players something to reach for. It’s a tough go right now, but the Americans and Canadians are positioning themselves with the NHL and the states and provinces to put the game on the map in North America. And if they can get support from the NHL, maybe they can build out a schedule.”
That sounds like the ideal resolution: a unified pro league featuring the best players in the world, backed by big corporate dollars and infrastructure. If that future can be achieved, the next generation of Angela James-type players will truly have what they need to be their best.