Thursday, 19 April 2012

Cassie Campbell: worthy recipient as first female to claim Order of Hockey in Canada

The announcement in April 2012 that Hockey Canada would establish the Order of Hockey in Canada is another opportunity to help preserve the history of the women’s game while helping to acknowledge the legends that graced the ice. While some may have argued for Angela James, the first female recipient is Cassie Campbell-Pascall (the first female captain to lead Canada’s women to back to back gold medals in the Winter Games) and she will undoubtedly be the first of many legendary females to have this honor bestowed upon them.

While the first class of recipients (Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Gord Renwick, Jean Beliveau, Campbell) will augment discussion and generate debate (because players such as Maurice Richard, Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy, Howie Morenz, Syl Apps, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Paul Henderson, Phil Esposito Angela James were not included), the reality is that Hockey Canada has an embarrassment of riches to choose from. Although Angela James was the first Canadian woman in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and James and Geraldine Heaney were inducted together into the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Hall of Fame, Campbell proved she is deserving of the honor, as she was in many ways the first face of women’s hockey.

Manon Rheaume will always be the First Lady of Hockey, and the inspiration for so many others that followed (such as Charline Labonte and Kim St. Pierre). Her hockey cards remain collector’s items, but her professional career competing against men had its ups and downs. Despite the fact that she also competed against women, her accomplishments at the 1994 Women’s World Championships did not generate the media attention that it should have. Ironically, Campbell and Hayley Wickenheiser made their debuts with Team Canada at those 1994 Championships, and they would end up setting the table for the next decade of women’s hockey.

In autumn 1997, Campbell appeared on the cover of Elm Street magazine, and an entire nation of hockey fans fell in love with her. She would follow this by appearing with Don Cherry on cans of Chunky Soup, with Brendan Shanahan on boxes of Maple Frosted Wheaties (which would become collector’s items in the United States), and grace the cover of Chatelaine in winter 1998.  She would also have the honor of throwing out the first pitch at the Toronto Blue Jays 1998 Canada Day Game (versus the New York Mets)

There is no question that this level of publicity emanated from the fact that Canada was icing its first women’s ice hockey team in the Winter Games. With the excitement generated for the upcoming 1998 Nagano Winter Games, Campbell had that girl next door appeal. Although Manon Rheaume played on that 1998 team, Campbell was a new face. While Rheaume would gain an endorsement with Old Spice, and there were other players who gained endorsements (Geraldine Heaney was on the box of Apple Cinnamon Cheerios, Nancy Drolet graced the boxes of Reese Cereal, and Vicky Sunohara was with Betty Crocker), Campbell emerged as the media darling of that time.

Despite the new found fame (which may have been overwhelming and unexpected), Campbell never forgot she was a hockey player first. She would help Canada win the gold medal at the 1999 World Championships, and she would be named Canada’s captain (although it was briefly shared with Therese Brisson) in 2000. Her performances at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City (2002) and Torino (2006) cemented her legacy as a leader.

Although she would parlay her fame into a reporting job with Hockey Night in Canada, and hockey clinics with Chevrolet, the charisma and likeability she displayed paved the way for other women’s players. Jennifer Botterill would interview NHLers for Wayne Gretzky’s website, and also appear on HNIC, while Tessa Bonhomme would become a reporter for Leafs TV and win the top prize on Battle of the Blades. Some hardcore fans may argue that Campbell gained opportunities because she was pretty; she helped generate interest in women’s hockey (which turned many women’s players into household names), and escape the obscurity that plagued many players from the 1980’s and 1990’s. In the end, she gave more than just a face to women’s hockey, she provided a legacy.

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