MONTREAL, QC.– No one can really dispute the overwhelming popularity of hockey in Canada. The six (now seven!) Canadian NHL teams sell out nearly every game of the season. During the Olympics, we expect and accept nothing less than a gold medal from the men representing our country on the ice. But over the last ten years, women’s hockey has gained popularity as well, particularly on the national stage, where Team Canada’s ladies have brought home gold in the last three Olympics (without losing a game.)
What most people don’t realize is how tough these ladies have it. Most still work regular 9-to-5 jobs during the day, train in the evenings, and playing hockey everywhere (and anywhere) they can. One place these ladies often find themselves facing off is the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).
The CWHL was founded in May 2007 after the National Women’s Hockey League had folded. The hockey-loving ladies found themselves with nowhere to hone their skills and remain competitive at the international level. Several players came together, found financial backing and formed the CWHL, giving the girls a place to play.
I recently chatted with Melissa Boufounos, who was drafted 52nd overall this year by Burlington. Her road to the CWHL was a long one, and not necessarily one she always envisioned for herself…
When Boufounos was a little girl of six years old, she played ringette. Her stepfather tried to convince her on several occasions to try hockey, but she was resistant at first. In 2000 when she went to register for ringette, she found that there was no longer a league in her area, so she signed up for hockey as a consolation prize, where she eventually found her true passion.
Boufounos constantly faced discrimination from the parents of other players, as she was perceived as “too good” for a house league. Unfortunately she wasn’t quite able to make the cut in the rep league, so the house league was the only place she could play. Despite their unkind remarks, she powered through, continuing to play the sport she so dearly loved.
For the past two years, Boufounos trained relentlessly to be a part of the CWHL. Then, in April, she suffered a devastating back injury, temporarily derailing her from her dream path. But, with a little determination, a lot of hard work and physiotherapy, Boufounos regained movement and was cleared to start training again. Now, more determined than ever, she began a gruelling training program.
Boufounos met strength and conditioning coach Nick Petrella via Twitter, and drove two hours to meet up with him, where they created a four day a week training program in the gym. She also works out on a skating treadmill once a week, on top of working a 9-5 job, coaching a little girl’s hockey team, and getting ice time herself. If that isn’t dedication to the sport, I don’t know what is.
As the 2011 CWHL draft approached, Boufounos found herself getting antsy. As many of the eligible girls played for Team Canada and Team USA at the Olympics, would she even have a shot?
When she heard the staff of the Burlington Barracudas call out her name as the 52nd selection overall, she was ecstatic. She describes going out for supper afterwards, “I was grinning ear to ear, people must have been wondering what drugs I was on”.
While Burlington finished a disappointing last place this past season, Boufounos and her coach, Ray Baumgaertner, are hopeful for the upcoming season. Only 12 girls from last year’s roster will be returning, and an additional 13 were drafted this year. All are invited to training camp in September, where they will duke it out for the 21 available spots. Baumgaertner claims “what this club may lack in skill, we will make up for in hard work.” If Boufounos does not make the team in September, she will play AA in OWHA for the Golden Blades.
When asked how Boufounos felt about potentially playing against the unbelievably talented Montreal team, she was very excited. The thought of playing against girls like Meghan Agosta and other Olympians makes her nervous.
“It’s going to be so weird taking a faceoff against these girls when I kind of want to ask them for an autograph in the circle!”
Like any young athlete, she dreams of representing her country at the Olympics, however she is very realistic and grounded, albeit determined. At 22, she has not yet played nationally, or played NCAA hockey like many other ladies in the CWHL. While she is still hopeful for the 2014 Olympic team, she has her sights set on being prepared for the 2018 tournament.
Ultimately, Boufounos loves playing hockey, and spreading the word about women’s hockey, and she uses her blog and Twitter to do so. She describes the close knit group of Habs fans on Twitter as the ultimate promoting ground, “from one Habs fan to another, we all just want to support each other”. For only $5.00, you can support her, and catch a game next season.
For more information about the CWHL, check out their website.
To stay up to date with Melissa Boufounos’ journey, follow her on Twitter @mbouf.
Follow me on Twitter @ladyhabs.