Chasing the Dream of Women’s Pro Hockey

As seen in The Epoch Times on July 12, 2011.

Part 1 of a series in which Melissa Boufounos, a 22-year-old from Montreal, Canada, talks about her journey to play professional hockey

Melissa Boufounos preparing to take a face-off as a member of the Etobicoke Dolphins Intermediate A team. (George Teichert)

For 12 years I have been waiting for this opportunity – the chance to play in the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL).

With only a few weeks left to go before the 2011 CWHL Draft, my stomach is going through a rollercoaster of emotions as my anticipation mounts.

The CWHL, which was founded in May 2007, is a not-for-profit organization run by the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Amateur Women’s Hockey. With only six teams (Boston, Brampton, Burlington, Montreal, Toronto and now Calgary) it is a league where the best female hockey players train and compete.

When the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) folded after the 2006–2007 season, olympians and world champions were left without a league to play in. Canadian gold medal-winning Olympians such as Sami Jo Small, Jennifer Botterill and Jayna Hefford, and American player Mandy Cronin along with a handful of others took the lead and met throughout the summer to figure out a way to create a new league.

With the help of Michael Salamon and Birch Hill Equity for financial backing and a solid business model, the CWHL was born.

Because the players are not paid to play and have to hold full time jobs to support their families, practices and games take place on evenings and weekends. Most teams have two practices during the week and games are usually held on weekends to also accommodate the travel time.

The CWHL is the most professionally run women’s hockey league in the world and gives elite players a competitive environment to showcase their skills.

Early Start

My first pair of skates was strapped on my feet the winter after I learned to walk. After a few years of figure skating and a short stint playing ringette my parents suggested I sign up for hockey. I still remember arguing with my parents at 10 years old that hockey was stupid and all I wanted to do was play ringette.

My step dad wanted me to give hockey a try since I could have more of a future (NWHL and Olympics) as opposed to playing ringette. I didn’t have much say in the matter because when we went to register for ringette, we found out the league had folded.

Melissa Boufounos is pursuing her dream to play women's pro hockey. (George Teichert)

Looking back, I take that league folding as a sign. Since then I have never thought twice about ringette. Hockey is my passion, my life. My parents spent countless hours driving me across Ontario to practices, games and tournaments. My second home was a hockey arena.

After playing four years of house league in Brampton, I played two seasons of rep in Etobicoke (B, BB) followed by a season of Midget A in Orangeville before returning to Etobicoke to play three more seasons of Intermediate A.

Along the way I also played for a few travel select teams (the best players from house league), my high school team and the men’s team at Seneca College.

This past season I played for the York Buds Senior B team in the Golden Blades Women’s Hockey League. Heading into Provincials weekend at the beginning of April my anticipation for preparing for the CWHL draft was heightening.

After my team went 3-0 to start the provincials we headed into our fourth game in under 30 hours – the quarterfinals. The game ended in a tie and went to a double overtime where our team was handed a penalty and I scored the game winner on a short-handed breakaway.

Our semifinal game also went to overtime where we lost a heart breaking match on a goal that deflected off one of our own player’s skates. We still had a berth in a championship game though, for the bronze medal.

Early in the second period of the championship game I went into the boards awkwardly with an opposing player and threw my lower back out. I came off the ice and my teammates sent me back out to play, they weren’t going to let me miss the rest of this game.

Once again my team would face the familiar threat of sudden death overtime in a do-or-die game.  I took a pass from the left-winger who was at the top of the faceoff circle and put it through the goalie’s legs. The provincial bronze medal was ours.

Back Injury

In the days following provincials I went to physiotherapy for my back where I was told I had slipped two of my lower discs and all of my muscles had gone into spasm and locked in order to protect the injured spine.

Right away fear crept into me – would I be able to skate in time for the draft? Would I even be able to train in the upcoming months until the draft?

Since I had absolutely no movement in my lower back I was told to stay off the ice and away from the gym until my muscles relaxed and unlocked. The time frame was at least a month.

Needless to say, an entire month of sitting around, not playing hockey and not hitting the gym was not what I had in mind as a way to prepare for the CWHL.

Finally, the second week into May and over a month since my injury occurred I was cleared to skate and train again. I was given a leg workout to regain the strength I lost and was advised to do a ton of abdominal and back exercises to rebalance and strengthen my core and avoid injury in the future.

Since my recovery I have been extremely focused on getting back into shape. I am playing summer hockey in a men’s league in Brampton, I attended eight skating treadmill sessions at the Skating Lab in Toronto and am now set up on a six week workout regimen from Total Package Hockey and will be driving to London for some on ice skating sessions with their development coaches.

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