All Pain, No Gain: An Inclusive Beginner League in Ottawa

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Introducing All Pain, No Gain: a beacon of inclusivity in Ottawa’s hockey scene. Formed from a shared experience on the ice, this women’s beginner pick-up league emerged for players seeking a supportive space to learn and play.

Tell us about your your initiative, program or league.

All Pain, No Gain is a women’s beginner pick-up hockey league in Ottawa. I started at Beer League Hockey Practice this past January and met Rita and Christine – we bonded over how embarrassing and hilarious it was to try the drills while still being relatively unskilled at even skating.

Towards the end of the session, we noticed outside of those clinics, there were not many spaces for newbies to play a game together – you had to be more advanced for most of the leagues, or there weren’t enough spaces for us to be on the same team. We decided to try and organize a couple of pick-up games, but didn’t have enough people. The name started out as a joke but felt extremely appropriate as a newbie to the sport.  

I started recruiting other ladies from the Bell Sensplex skills clinics we were doing, and then posted on a few local Ottawa women’s hockey Facebook groups hoping to get enough women to play a couple of games. I expected 5-6 responses. We received over 100. I was inundated with messages from other women like us who had just started playing in the last year or so who felt the same – co-ed leagues were too intimidating, there were no beginner leagues in the city, and they needed the ice time to practice their skills. We decided to just roll with it because it was obvious we were not the only ones who needed this space.

Can you share any personal stories or anecdotes about how hockey has positively impacted individuals within your league or community?

Hockey has given myself, and I’d like to think several of the other women I’ve recently met, a new sense of community. What I hear most from other players is that joining a new sport, having never played as a kid or even if you just haven’t played in years, is scary. As adults we are more intimidated by trying something new and not being good at it, especially in the presence of others who have been doing it for a long time.

By contrast, we’ve found that the hockey community is wildly supportive. It’s common for other players to offer suggestion without judgement. Encouragement comes in the form of echo-y shouts from the benches, glove taps, the sound of sticks hitting the ice – and sometimes even a silly little CanSkate ribbon. Our league includes women who started playing at 50 years old, one who comes from two hours away on a Friday night because she loves to play that much – hockey brings a passionate kind of person into your life. It’s not a quantifiable measure of impact but a qualitative one.

How does your league address barriers to entry for female players, such as access to equipment, facilities, or coaching?

All Pain, No Gain is a women’s-only pick-up league and requires no commitment – you choose which games you play and you only pay for those. It brings the cost down to make playing more accessible, as well as offering a flexible schedule for those not in a position to commit to a league. Our group chat has been promoting women’s-only skills clinics, such as the ones being run at the University of Ottawa, and we are hoping to organize some skills clinics with a coach later on this summer.

What advice would you give to other leagues or organizations looking to promote gender equity and inclusivity within their community?

Hold space for the beginners. When I’ve done hockey skills clinics in the past, the best are the ones who separate you by skill level for each drill. It’s intimidating to be mixed in with advanced players, who often get impatient and try to pass you mid-drill. You end up focusing more on getting out of the way then you are on the skill you’re learning. Offer Intro to Hockey courses and make it clear it’s for new players. Offer parent-and-me skating classes. When I started the first skills clinic, it was a date night idea for myself and my partner – use that in your advertising. I think some of the organizations need to re-frame it as more fun and less serious – for us, we laugh at ourselves every time we fail at the newest skill. We get it eventually, but it’s just as much about learning the skill as it is about the fun we have getting there.

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