ATP’s Glory a gently humorous Hallmark card to the pioneers of women’s hockey in Canada

As hockey season in Calgary came to a lacklustre end, Alberta Theatre Projects (in collaboration with Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops) is hoping to offer hockey fans a reason to head to the inner city again. Glory is the real-life story of the Preston Springs Rivulettes, early pioneers in women’s hockey in Ontario. Legendarily, they were a group of friends playing softball in the summer, looking for something to do in the winter, and landing on hockey.

The central characters (in life as well as in the play) are two pairs of sisters who find themselves somewhat accidentally blazing a trail for women hockey players in 1933. Hilda (Katie Ryerson) is the superstar, a natural talent who has already made a reputation in their small town playing with the men and convinces the others to give it a try. Her sister Nellie (Morgan Yamada) spends a lot of time falling during drills, and is quickly made goaltender. Marm (Gili Roskies) is reluctant at first, but jumps in to defend women’s right to play, and ends up a leader and sometimes enforcer. Helen (Kate Dion-Richard) is even more reluctant, noting at their first game that members of the opposing team have an “athletic build” that she doesn’t crave, but she takes to the game quickly and becomes a standout. They find themselves with an even more reluctant coach, the crusty Mr. Fach (Kevin Corey), who has been pressed into service by a bitter former hockey rival who thinks that coercing him into coaching ladies’ hockey is a punishment for past sins.

In addition to battling resistance of the critics and stereotypes of female athletes, the fictional version of the so-called “hockey dolls” each have their off-ice struggles, too. Hilda has trouble with numbers, and in the midst of the Depression has a hard time keeping a job. Marm and Helen are Jewish, and Marm is angry about racist attitudes toward Jews, and suspicious of Mr Fach, a German who spent time in an internment camp during the Great War. Meanwhile, Helen is trying to have a normal life outside hockey that she hopes will include a husband and children, and Nellie is agonizing over her unrequited love for Helen.

This is a CanCon orgy aimed most particularly at those with a sense of hockey history. There is a passing mention of Clarence Campbell as the referee for one of the team’s playoff games. There are frequent references to Olympic medallist and multi-sport star Bobbie Rosenfeld, who at the time was president of the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association. The CBC plays in the background throughout, and the Rivulettes play the Winnipeg Eaton’s, the Edmonton Rustlers, and the Toronto Ladies at various points in their decade-long hockey career.

The most engaging part of the show is the choreography that cleverly conveys the on-ice action, as well as a sense of time and place in history. Each scene is built around a game that plays out on stage, and dance is the medium by which playwright and choreographer Tracey Power makes this improbable action happen. It all takes place on a simple but striking set by Narda McCarroll that seamlessly transforms from a hockey arena to a locker room, a living room, and a train across the country.

Corey is flawlessly crusty as the initially unwilling coach, and provides an effective anchor for the players, who are often literally and metaphorically swirling around him. Dion-Richard, Roskies, Ryerson and Yamada are well-matched and charismatic.

Powers and director James MacDonald don’t really take advantage of the melancholy undertone that might otherwise have seemed inherent in the end of the play. The Rivulettes are headed to Europe to start to build an international audience for hockey when their plans are derailed by the onset of the Second World War. Hilda gives a rousing speech foreshadowing a time in the future when women can play hockey all the time, and might even play in the Olympics one day, and this forms the apparently inspirational launching pad for the future that ends the play. Of course, in reality, women’s hockey went on “hiatus” as WWII began, and lost momentum. The sport didn’t really start to ramp up again until the late 1970s. Hayley Wickenheiser (who was in the audience opening night) is still considered a pioneer in women’s hockey, almost 90 years after Hilda Ranscombe looked set to lead her team to the Olympics. This paradox seems a bit of a missed opportunity in the narrative, but the happy ending will likely satisfy most people who aren’t me.

There is a gentle humour running through the play that never gets too edgy, and the war is looming in the background, but the tone never gets too dark. It’s more of a Hallmark card to women’s hockey than anything else, but it’s fun to watch, and anyone with a passing interest in hockey will have a fun night out.

Glory runs at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Arts Commons until April 21.

(Photo: Kate Dion-Richard, Gili Roskies, Katie Ryerson, and Morgan Yamada, Photo by Barbara Zimonick)

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Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.