EDMONTON — Beat Finland. Get into the Olympics.
If you love, coach or play ringette in Canada, that’s the top of the to-do list. More immediate hopes and plans for the game — which was invented 55 years ago by a Canadian, the late Sam Jacks — would include increased financial sponsorship and media coverage, as well as more fans, players, coaches and officials.
Even so, champions of the game here are relatively content, despite the fact the senior national team has lost six straight world titles to Finland and the game is no closer to the five-ring circus than it was 20 years ago.
There are hard numbers to support the enthusiasm. When Ringette Canada announces a registration total for the 2017-18 season — which concludes April 14 in Winnipeg with national finals — the number will be north of 30,000 players, the highest it has ever been.
Registration took a significant dip after women’s hockey became an Olympic sport in 1998 and the rebuild took some time, but both sports are growing and showing an ability to co-exist rather than compete. Hockey Canada reported female registration of 88,541 last year.
“We don’t want to compare ourselves to any sport,” said Natasha Johnston, Ringette Canada’s executive director. “I love hockey. A lot of us have played hockey … We just want to expose more Canadians and more young women to our sport and show them it is an alternative that may be interesting to them.”
The approach is working. There will be 47 teams at the ringette nationals, one off the organization’s zenith. There are 15 teams in the National Ringette League, again just short of the historical high point. National team programs are finally exactly that, rather than a series of one-off teams formed specifically for each successive world championship. And everything fits together in a system, allowing athletes to navigate up and through the ranks with relative ease.
“We don’t want the NRL to stand in isolation, just as we wouldn’t want our national teams to stand in isolation,” said Johnston. “System alignment is something really important for us and something we will continue to work on with our provincial partners so that athletes understand those pathways … From a high performance perspective, we’re looking at the entirety of the system. How do all the spokes of the wheel fit together?”
Better than ever, in fact. There is clarity for athletes and stability for administrators, both products of a lengthy, intense competition review conducted by the organization, one that stressed the need for a wholistic approach to development. The sport’s deep thinkers are now doing the right things, large and small, to build their grassroots base and provide those logical pathways through age and skill groups, all while further enabling their smaller pool of elite athletes.
For example, at this month’s tournament in Winnipeg, the national team therapist will be on hand for the first time. It’s a small thing, but a plus for some athletes. In a far more impactful move, the U16 and U19 nationals were opened up in 2012 to more than just provincial champs, with an eye on long-term athlete development. Some teams lose the provincial title by a goal and miss out on valuable, high-level competition at nationals. Now, every team is eligible for another taste of intense competition, and some of those players will surely be inspired to try out for the junior national team.
Lorrie Horne, the head coach of that program, was a good player and is a better coach, employing a skills development method that consistently turns out champions. Hers was the last Canadian senior national team to beat Finland at a worlds, in 2002. Her junior national squad beat Finland at the worlds last November in Mississauga.
She gathers players from across the country, throws them together on an ice surface perhaps just 20 times between May and November, and prepares them to win.
She starts with good stock, looking for young women ready to battle for position in a non-contact sport, eager to play a hard-nosed, gritty game, and to fit into her system. She says the women knocking on her door are better suited to the challenge now.
“If you want to talk maybe 15 years ago, there were lots of great players, but were they athletes? You know what I mean?” Horne said. “There are athletes and there are people who play the game. The kids coming into our program now embody the elite athlete.”
The supports are in place to ensure it continues, with solid off-ice training programs for players year-round, and a new focus on elevating good coaches to the elite level.
“There is support for our coaches and our athletes. We have a streamlined system,” said Frances Losier, Ringette Canada’s high performance director. “And we already know what we’re doing for 2019.”
They also know they won’t be playing ringette in an Olympics anytime soon. Finland and Canada dominate every world tournament, leaving Sweden, the USA, the Czech Republic and/or Slovakia to fight it out in a second tier. Despite some outreach efforts by Canadian and Finnish officials, the game isn’t spreading around the globe, and has not drawn the attention of the International Olympic Committee.
Will it ever happen?
“No one knows what that answer is,” said Losier. “So we keep doing what we do so on the day that happens, we’re ready to go.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @sportsdanbarnes