While women's hockey might seem to be a relatively recent phenomenon, its history actually stretches back into the late-19th century, and until the Second World War, was considered a sport for both sexes. Since the resurgence of the women's game in the 1980's, the game's recent history has been largely a story of just two countries - the United States and Canada.
No one knows exactly when women first laced up skates to play hockey, but the best guess is that it probably wasn't long after the modern game itself began to spread throughout Canada in the 1870s and 1880s.
A photo from 1889 now in the National Archives shows a group of women playing a game on the lawn of Rideau Hall. In the picture is Isobel Preston, daughter of Lord Stanley himself. A story in the Ottawa Citizen on Feb. 11, 1891 is believed to be the first published account of a women's game.
Around the turn of the century, women were playing on teams across the country, in ankle-length skirts, no less. By the 1920s, women were playing at the University of Toronto, McGill University and Queen's University, and during the '30s a national championship was played between club teams from Eastern and Western Canada.
But in contrast to women's baseball, recently made temporarily famous in the film A League of Their Own, interest in women's hockey began to wane during the Second World War, when huge numbers of Canadian men left to fight in Europe, and women flooded the workforce to fill the void.
After the war North American society took a decidedly conservative turn. Women were discouraged from playing hockey -- any sports at all, really -- and the ones that wanted to play hockey found ice time hard to come by. The post-war rise of pro hockey in North America following the war further marginalized women's hockey.
The women's game began to grow again during the 1960s, once again a reflection of wider changes in society. During the 1970s, teams spread across Canada, the United States and Europe, and in the 1980s, numerous varsity and club programs were formed in Canadian and American universities.
Women's hockey made its first big move toward regular international competition in 1987 with the World Invitational Tournament in Toronto. Three years later, in March 1990, the International Ice Hockey Federation held the first Women's World Championship in Ottawa with eight nations represented.
In the final, Team Canada, wearing hot pink uniforms, roared back from a 0-2 deficit to beat the U.S.A. 5-2 and win the gold medal. Finland defeated Sweden, 6-3, for the bronze medal. Bodychecking was allowed in that first tournament, but was later banned. One thing that would remain a constant in world championship tournaments, though, was the distribution of medals, with Canada, the U.S. and Finland perennially winning the gold, silver and bronze, respectively.
Although the women's game was now established, it was still going through growing pains. The U.S. and Canada were fairly evenly matched, there was (and still remains), a huge drop-off beyond them, as other countries try to close the gap, but the development of women's hockey in Europe and Asia continues to lag behind North America.
Canada still regularly beats opponents by more than a half-dozen goals. Even the Americans, who were always Canada's toughest competition, were shellacked 8-0 in the 1992 worlds and 6-3 in the 1994 final. But by 1997, one year before the inaugural Olympic competition, the Americans served notice that they had pulled even with their Canadian rivals. In a see-saw final Canada needed a goal from Nancy Drolet to eke out a 4-3 overtime win.
In that pre-Olympic year the Canadians and Americans appeared closely matched. In 13 pre-Olympic appearances Canada won seven. Canada, the U.S., Finland, Sweden, China and Japan were represented in that historic first Olympic tournament, but as usual, it was just assumed that the gold medal would be fought over by the Americans and the Canadians.
The two teams first met in the final round robin game. Canada led the U.S. 4-1 into the third period. But the American women exploded for six goals in 13 minutes to win 7-4.
The Canadian women's collapse was an omen that the U.S. could no longer be counted on to roll over in big games. As expected the two teams met in the final. The U.S. carried a 2-0 lead with four minutes left when Danielle Goyette pulled Canada to within one. That was as close as Canada got as the U.S. added an empty-netter to win the historic first women's hockey gold 3-1.
Canada shook off the disappointment by again capturing the world championship in 1999 and 2000, running their record in the tournament to 35-0.
But again with the Olympics closing in again, the gap between Canada and the U.S. narrowed. In the 2000 final the Canadian women owed their gold medal to goaltender Kim St. Pierre. The U.S. outshot Canada 35 to 18, but Canada still managed to hold on for a 3-2 win.
United States - 1