The next step in hockey great Cassie Campbell-Pascall’s trail-blazing journey
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/12/2015 (2480 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It happened so fast. There was the 1997 world championship, and the ’98 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. Then, suddenly, there was cash — and nobody had prepared Cassie Campbell-Pascall for that.
Boys knew that dream. Boys grew up seeing Mario Lemieux on TV and Wayne Gretzky’s frozen smile on a cereal box. Gretzky, a golden sentinel at the breakfast table, tacitly promising that if boys worked hard enough, and if they could play, there might be money and a whole lot of fame.
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, girls didn’t have many role models whispering fantasies of the same. The women Campbell-Pascall admired as a teen, she says with a laugh, probably spent more money playing hockey — and gave back more to the game — than they ever made.
That’s changing, a little.
Last weekend, when Campbell-Pascall guided a gaggle of young players through drills at the annual Girls Hockeyfest at Winnipeg’s MTS Iceplex, they all knew her name. They clamoured to hear about the current stars of the game, peppering her with questions about Marie-Philip Poulin and Natalie Spooner.
For girls today, the road up the mountain is well-marked. The shape of it stretches out clearer.
But it was still mostly untravelled in the late 1990s, when Campbell-Pascall was hurled into a whirlwind of spotlights and sponsors. The 1998 Olympics changed everything — especially for the spunky young forward from Brampton, Ont.
“It all came so fast,” she recalls. “I guess Nike was one of my first (sponsors). Nike and McDonald’s right away. All of a sudden, I have to hire an agent. There were so many, I can’t even remember all of them. Campbell’s soup. All of a sudden, I was doing this stuff with (CBC hockey commentator) Don Cherry. It was so overwhelming to me, and there was nowhere to go for advice.”
Oh, but what a moment in a life, to lead the way into a whiplash curve in women’s sport and skate out the other side — mostly intact, and thoroughly alive. Eighteen years later, Campbell-Pascall is at the front still: mentor, builder, board member of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster.
It all goes back to those days in Nagano, in a way. Those historic Games ended in a stinging disappointment (a silver medal) for the first Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team, but they set in motion a sea change that would turn players into household names and swell female hockey enrolment.
Not that it felt so rosy at the time. On the ice, the Canadians were frayed — at least, compared to their surging American archrivals. Campbell-Pascall, then a 24-year-old alternate captain, was struggling to navigate the hype heaped on her talented shoulders.
Few of the teammates knew how to balance it. Goalie Manon Rhéaume had the most experience with the spotlight, having earned buzz at the minor-pro level and a couple of NHL exhibition games. The team leaned on her a little, but she was also wrestling with her own play.
“It was ‘bang, welcome to the Olympic’ movement,” Campbell-Pascall says. “We were the first ever, so we just didn’t handle a lot of things very well. I know for me personally I didn’t… I think I was a young kid stuck in a leadership role, and just didn’t quite know how to handle it.”
The 3-1 loss to the Americans in the final sent a crystal-clear message about play and preparation. When it was over, Campbell-Pascall looked around the room at some of the veterans, such as then-39-year-old forward and former Team Canada captain France St-Louis, and vowed not to forget it.
“We had one chance for so many of our pioneers,” she says. “We kind of blew it, and it was their opportunity, and they deserved it so much. That fired me pretty much for the rest of my career to be better, and change the colour of the medal… I think we learned a lot about ourselves that year, and not all of it was so pleasant.”
Maybe that group had to learn those things, for the next teams to be better. They were: in 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah, with Campbell-Pascall as captain, the Canadian women won gold. They won another four years later in Turin, Italy, just before she hung up her skates for good. She was 32, and had done it all: six world championships, two Olympic gold medals.
But this isn’t a story about golden endings, though, it’s a story about building roads. For women, that work is far from done.
The fall after she retired, Campbell-Pascall joined Hockey Night in Canada and became the first woman to deliver colour commentary. But despite all she had done, despite the trail she had blazed and the fact she would soon be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, she found herself back at the beginning.
In an echo of her childhood days skating with boys at the Eddie Shack Hockey School in Ontario, one of Canada’s female hockey greats was once again fighting to prove she knew the game.
She was just two days into her new TV job, she recalls, when viewers started ripping her performance, questioning her knowledge of the sport. At the time, a male colleague suggested he problem was she never played in the NHL. Campbell-Pascall pushed back.
“Ron McLean never played in the NHL,” she pointed out. “Bob McKenzie never played in the NHL. Half the writers in Toronto never played in the NHL, and people still respect their opinions.”
That push back is fading now, she adds. The barbs about her qualifications still sometimes come, especially now that social media gives people a direct pipeline to vent their disdain. (The players, she notes, are different. They confide in her, call her by name, seem to recognize her as a fellow warrior, someone who has fought through the same aches and rode the same waves.)
It’s frustrating. But Campbell-Pascall has already battled up untravelled roads. So after she and her husband, Calgary Flames assistant general manager Brad Pascall, welcomed their first daughter five years ago, she decided it was time to stop fretting about any jabs viewers might throw.
“I used to get upset by it, but now I don’t even bother,” she says. “I think it comes from my hockey background. Coaches tell you some negative stuff sometimes, too. You either fight through it or you don’t. You die or you choose to survive. I choose to survive.”
Besides, she’s busy. When she’s not on TV or running hockey clinics, Campbell-Pascall’s time is taken up by helping to guide the CWHL. The goal, she emphasizes, is raising the league to a level where its players — currently awarded prize money, but mostly unpaid — can take home a regular wage.
That path has been fraught as of late. This year, the CWHL found itself in a tense position with the new National Women’s Hockey League, which launched in the U.S. with a different funding model and four salary-paying teams. That’s a whole other story in itself; Campbell-Pascall hopes the two leagues can find a way to work together.
No matter what, she says, the goal is the same: to build a women’s pro league, similar to a smaller version of the WNBA.
“The NHL’s support is our ultimate goal,” she says. “There’s a certain group of people that have been in constant discussion for the NHL for many, many years… We have the Flames supporting us, the (Toronto Maple) Leafs. The Montreal Canadiens.”
Campbell-Pascall has left some things from her journey in the past. Her Olympic medals are wrapped in washcloths and plastic and bundled away in an old leather bag. The ink from the ribbons has stained the metal, a little; she should probably get them cleaned, she says.
But life rolls on. A few months ago, her five-year-old daughter, Brooke, came home from school and said, “Mommy, did you win some kind of medals or something? My teacher told me.”
That’s the strange thing about the Olympics. You get there and it’s a dream, even if it was one you only started being able to reach for when you were already a teen. Then it passes. One day, it’s just something that happened once upon a time.
But the memories stay. The friendships stay. And the love of the game, that never goes away. That’s why, Campbell-Pascall says, you can always count on seeing her around the rink, even when her broadcasting career ends.
“I feel like I owe the game,” she says. “It’s given me so much… and you love it so much, you want to see it grow.
“You feel like you just owe it to the girls who played before you, who did the same things and yet didn’t reap the benefits of it.”
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.
Updated on Saturday, December 19, 2015 7:53 AM CST: Updates pictures.