Julie Stevens still remembers waking up before sunrise to lace up her skates as the only girl on a mixed hockey team in rural Ontario.
A wooden roof blanketed the arena, where the boards were twice as high as she was. She had to shovel the choppy ice herself before batting a puck around and doing what she loved most.
Like many small-town Canadian kids with big dreams, Stevens would do just about anything for the sport. Unfortunately, for many young girls and other minorities, hockey — among other sports — hasn’t always been particularly accessible or welcoming.
Stevens, Associate Professor in Brock University’s Department of Sport Management and Special Advisor for the Canada Games to President Gervan Fearon, has recently been elected to a two-year term as a director on the Board of Directors of the Ontario Hockey Federation (OHF), where she hopes to “grow the game of hockey” — for everyone.
“I’m really humbled that I’ve been elected to the OHF Board at a time of crisis for sport and of significant challenge for the Federation,” says Stevens. “I see my role as providing service, strategy and oversight, as well as capitalizing on opportunities that will help the OHF come out of these challenging times.”
The OHF is a branch of the national hockey federation, Hockey Canada, and serves as the governing body with seven members, including:
- Alliance Hockey
- Greater Toronto Hockey League
- Northern Ontario Hockey Association
- Ontario Hockey Association
- Ontario Hockey League
- Ontario Minor Hockey Association
- Ontario Women’s Hockey Association
Stevens, a former all-star player from Queen’s University, volunteer coach for the Brock Badgers women’s hockey team and scholar with more than 25 years of academic research on the sport, is well suited for the position.
“As a player, coach and hockey mom, I have an understanding of community in minor hockey roots,” she says. “When you combine it with my research, it’s a unique portfolio of hockey background and experiences.”
She says her most meaningful memories of the sport are when she made the switch to an all-girls team at the age of 13, where her parents would drive 40 minutes away from their hometown of Erin, Ont., so she could play with other girls.
Stevens breaks her childhood memories of playing hockey into two categories.
“One is kind of social and identifying with other girls — it took a while for my family and I to find other girls I could play with,” she says. “The other is the typical one: playing outside in the icy cold of winter, especially on frozen puddles in the fields around my home.”
One of the things she’s most looking forward to in her new position on the OHF Board is collaborating with other leaders of the sport in Ontario to help expand the game.
“The OHF Board of Directors already has many experienced directors who have contributed to many different areas of hockey over different years,” says Stevens. “It’s a tremendous opportunity for me to work with them.”
Tony Foresi, President of the OHF and Chair of the Board, first met Stevens at the Women in Sport Leadership Forum hosted by the Centre for Sport Capacity at Brock last year. It didn’t take long for him to realize the value she would bring to the OHF.
“After capturing her time for at least 30 minutes, I was convinced the OHF would be a better organization if we could convince her to put her name forward for a position on our Board,” says Foresi, adding that diversification has been a vision of his since he assumed leadership of the OHF in 2015.
“Her expertise in the game and within sport is exactly what the OHF requires in its Board members as we move forward. She sees all sides of the situation and analyzes it to achieve the correct approach.”
Stevens says women’s hockey has evolved to the point where women who played years ago, such as herself, have a lot to contribute as leaders, mentors, coaches and in management positions.
“I believe young girls are motivated when they see a woman in a governance role on a board and in a decision-making role,” she says. “It’s affirmation for young girls who are playing that, yeah, there’s a spot for you in hockey beyond just playing.”