IN a country that worships men's ice hockey and all its attendant grunting, banging, and bashing, the sudden popularity of women's hockey has caught some by surprise.
But not 26-year-old Geraldine Heaney, who has played organized hockey since, at age 10, she begged her dad to find her a team. The only one he could find was a boys' team. Last week the little girl who grew up playing against the boys made Canada's national women's team for the third time in four years. ``I'm glad to see it growing so much,'' Ms. Heaney says of women's hockey. ``But, no, it doesn't surprise me. It had to happen eventually.''
While the number of Canadian men and boys playing hockey has fallen in recent years, the number of women playing has more than doubled in three years. More than 14,000 women played organized hockey in Canada in 1992, up sharply from a little more than 7,000 in 1990, according to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (CAHA). Meanwhile, male players fell from 481,000 two years ago to 424,000 last year, the CAHA says. The Ontario Women's Hockey Association (OWHA), which boasts the largest female hockey program in the world, says membership grew from about 4,500 to more than 6,300 players in the same period.
``It is growing globally,'' says Fran Rider, president of the OWHA. ``In the United States they've seen dramatic growth since the 1990 world championships. The other countries are seeing growth, too.''
The phenomenon of Canadian girls playing a sport long held to be too rough for them is on display at an outdoor ice rink here in metropolitan Toronto where Heaney conducts an evening class for a group of young girls, some with pony tails sticking out from under their helmets.
With all eyes locked on Heaney, she uses conversational tones to urge the girls to skate from one end of the rink to the other using long, exaggerated strokes. By this, she explains, they learn to warm up properly and skate powerfully while getting used to carrying a hockey stick. The workout gets more vigorous with passing and shooting practice amid the falling snow.
Women's hockey in Canada is 102 years old: The first documented game was played in 1892 in Barrie, Ontario. Women then wore long skirts and heavy sweaters, slowing the game, but retaining a certain propriety.
Hockey historian Brian McFarlane says women's hockey has seen several boom periods in Canada, including the early 1900s when a newspaper account says 3,000 to 5,000 people appeared for a women's game between Cornwall, Ont., and Ottawa. The 1920s and '30s were good, too. Then World War II's demands mostly wiped out women's hockey in Canada, he says.
The boom since the 1990 and 1992 world championship victories over the US is ``unprecedented'' in Canada, McFarlane says. ``It's so much bigger, and it's international in scope.''
CAHA officials say women's hockey was given a boost when 1.5 million people watched the 1990 championships in which Heaney became a national hero by scoring the medal-winning goal. The credibility of women's hockey was further cemented by its inclusion in the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan.
``Parents now see that there's a future for their girls to get involved and stay involved in hockey,'' says Glynis Peters, manager of female hockey for the CAHA. But more important than good publicity and Olympic recognition has been a change in public attitudes.
``From the time I was a youngster, I was told that girls don't play hockey,'' says 37-year-old Susan Scherer, a former national team player who now coaches and plays recreationally. ``Men's hockey has been sacred territory in Canada. Now we're starting to see the women's game emerge as a game unto itself.''
Contributing to the sport's fast growing popularity, in some eyes, was the CAHA's late still-controversial 1980s ban on body checking for women. Parents are less worried about the sport now, some say.
``Women are doing nontraditional things, and this sport is just a lot more acceptable these days,'' Peters says. ``Young girls aren't put down for playing a game like hockey. And you can see that you don't to have to be a tough tomboy to play.''
Heaney and Scherer spent most of their careers playing when body checking was permitted. Both agree outlawing it has radically changed the game, mostly for the better, by putting emphasis on fast skating, stick handling, shooting, and other skills. It has also equalized the sport, making a player's size less important. Women still collide. It is still a tough, physical game, but the emphasis has changed, Scherer says.
``When women started to play, they emulated the men's game,'' she says. ``The emergence of a noncontact game has improved skills, improved the game, and produced a new level of respect'' among the players.
* The 1994 World Women's Ice Hockey Championships, which will include teams from Asia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland, will be played in Lake Placid, N.Y., April 11-17.