The modern day is a pivotal time for women's Para hockey.
The inaugural Para Ice Hockey Women's World Challenge last week in Green Bay, Wis., was a successful step toward the ultimate goal of inclusion in the Paralympics, but there is still work to be done in order to remove barriers.
While Para hockey is technically a mixed sport at the Paralympic level, only three female players have ever competed in the tournament since its debut at the Lillehammer Games in 1994. The sport is governed by the International Paralympic Committee through the World Para Ice Hockey organization, which has set the goal of adding a women's tournament to the Paralympic program for the 2030 Games.
The first-ever Women's World Challenge event, featuring four teams, showcased the women's players on the international stage while paving the way for the sport's future growth. Canada took home silver after falling to the United States in the gold-medal game, while Team World defeated Great Britain for bronze.
The event generated momentum for the sport's global development, which is essential for the establishment of a women's world championship in 2025 — the next goal before the Paralympics.
"Now they know that every year there's going to be a women's tournament that is going to be happening where you can compete, with the eventual look to get a women's world championship happening. That is needed in order to get to the Paralympic Games," Canada's women's head coach Tara Chisholm told CBC Sports.
"There's some steps that need to come along the way, but I think having an event that is scheduled every year allows new countries to be able to set a timeline and a goal as to where they want to go and achieve that rather than just training to train and not really knowing when the next competition would be."
WATCH | Interview with Canadian head coach Tara Chisholm:
World Para Ice Hockey told CBC Sports that the tournament in Green Bay has already boosted participation, something that is part of their overall strategic plan to move the sport forward.
"While there is still a lot of work ahead, the impact of the event can already be seen in the number of female players licensed by World Para Ice Hockey which raised from two in 2021 to 64 in 2022 [54 of them were registered for competition at the Women's Word Challenge].
"We are extremely proud of the results achieved and already working together with our partners and members to increase participation in the next edition in 2023."
Team World, which was comprised of athletes from several nations, will help grow the sport outside of North America. There are currently only three individual nations with women's teams — not enough for a separate women's Paralympic tournament.
"Ideally, it would be eight nations. We might be able to have allowance for six, but the goal is to get eight there so that we can make sure that they're competitive and at a top level for performance," Chisholm said. "We have a few nations that have started to break away now after this event, that are already talking about putting in their own individual nations for next season. That's exactly what we wanted to happen."
Unequal playing field
Chisholm thinks the current mixed sport format at the Paralympics only hinders their cause while creating an illusion of equality.
"We're under the belief with our team that it causes more harm than good because It gives people an easy out to say, 'if a woman was good enough, then she would just make our roster.' Having it as a mixed sport, but not actually having any women competing, just gives those that are running the teams an easy way to say a woman could if she wanted to, if she worked hard enough," Chisholm said.
"We know that's not the case, so that's why we're looking for gender equity in this sport."
Norwegians Bri Mjaasund Oejen (Lillehammer 1994) and Lena Schroeder (PyeongChang 2018), and China's Yu Jing (Beijing 2022) are the only female Paralympian hockey players to date.
Canada's Alanna Mah and Raphaelle Tousignant have been invited to the national team selection camp in Calgary this week, where they face the daunting task of making the same team as the men.
"We wouldn't expect an able-bodied sport to ask a woman to crack a roster on a men's squad, so why are we doing it in Paralympic sport? I think it's well past its years of that being a reasonable request, so we need to change something," Chisholm said.
Female Para hockey players in Canada face even more obstacles, as the sport isn't funded by Hockey Canada. This makes it even more challenging to break onto the national Paralympic team.
"These men's Para teams are starting to push the boundaries of what's possible in our sport. It's not to say that a woman would not be able to do it, but the resources that a man is given as he comes up through the ranks within our Para hockey world are a lot different than the resources that a woman receives," Chisholm said.
Along with making it harder to compete alongside the men, the lack of financial support also puts the Canadian women at a disadvantage against their American counterparts, who won gold in Green Bay with an undefeated record.
Chisholm said the team was forced to cancel camps just so players could save enough money to compete at the Women's World Challenge, adding that they have to hold donation drives to pay for equipment, event frees and travel expenses. The Canadian women's team is run entirely by volunteers.
"We have 16 unbelievably talented women who have already faced their fair share of hardships in life. They don't need to fight a sexist and ableist system, but they are so that the next generation doesn't have to do it," Chisholm wrote on Twitter.