Community Role Models: Mark Weber, Director - Ice Sports Victoria
During summer, as Melbourne sweats through a heat wave, a group of tough and lightning quick women escape to a frozen world to enjoy a foreign game that’s growing in popularity.
Nearing its 14th season, the Australian Women’s Ice Hockey League, which runs from October to March, is the nation’s top competition for women’s ice hockey, the elite-end of a community that is changing the game for women in sport and recreation in Victoria.
Mark Weber, Director at Ice Sports Victoria, has been involved in ice hockey in Australia since the early 1980s when he migrated from Canada, and has seen the rise of the sport first-hand.
“It’s been great to see how far the game has grown over the years but particularly just recently we’re seeing a lot of women interested in hockey, which traditionally has been very male-dominated,” Weber told Change Our Game.
“It’s an exciting time. Just recently Melbourne’s third ice rink has reopened in Reservoir, and later in the year another rink is opening in Pakenham.”
Ice hockey’s history Down Under stretches all the way back to 1906, where an exhibition between a Victorian representative team and visiting American sailors took place in South Melbourne. Sixteen years later in 1922 the nation’s first inter-state women’s ice hockey tournament was held, eclipsing many other team sports’ history of women’s participation.
Unsurprisingly due to our climate, ice hockey and other ice sports have never been at the forefront of Australian minds, but in the age of the internet, more and more Australians are showing an interest in the game. “A lot of the growth in hockey has come from social media, easier ways to follow the NHL in America, the Winter Olympics every four years, and notably the Canada v USA exhibition games we host in Australia, it’s starting to give hockey a lot more exposure to attract both men and women,” said Weber.
Margaret Tope, mother of Emily Davis-Tope, who plays for Melbourne Ice Women and is captain of the Australian Women’s Under 18 Ice Hockey Team says Emily loved the feeling of gliding on ice and flourished when the opportunity of an all-girls team came up.
“In Bendigo, we started by just taking our kids out on the ice for fun, my daughter started figure skating and the two boys played hockey. Until she finally said one day ‘I think I’d like to try what the boys are doing’. She never looked back.”
“She loved playing with the boys, they all took care of her and treated her respectfully but when she got to play on an all-girls team, for her, it just took it to another level.”
“When Emily first started we knew there was the Melbourne Ice Women’s team and that was very inspirational for her that she could come and watch an elite women’s team and then set a goal for herself to play one day on that team.”
Fellow under 18 Australian team member Emily Page, who plays for the Melbourne Dragons Women’s Ice Hockey Team says for her, it’s the camaraderie of the sport that makes it so special. “In Australia, ice hockey is a very community-minded sport, we’re just like a big family, and it doesn’t matter whether you play at a high-level or at the junior level,” Page says.
“I was 13 and my dad took me to the rink after my birthday I went for a bit of a skate and I watched the Melbourne Ice Women’s team play and I just knew from then that I wanted to someday play for them, so I signed up to get ready.”
“My friends who don’t know much about it think it’s pretty tough. To be a great hockey player you have to be strong, you have to be fast, you have to have stamina, good hand-eye coordination, and it’s a lot about character, coaches will choose you on your character, they won’t choose you necessarily on the way you play, they want a good teammate who can add to the team chemistry.”
In 2018, the Melbourne Ice Women won their sixth title, and in 2019, the league will see it’s fifth team, the Perth Inferno, join Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney in the competition.
The reality is that barriers for entry to ice sports still exist, but it’s something that Weber and the team are fully aware of and are striving to remove as a part of the Change Our Game vision, ensuring sports welcome every Victorian no matter their gender.
“Women make up half our population and I think a lot of the time they’re not given the same opportunities as men.”
“Time is a big issue – mums for example would want to skate during the day but sometimes that’s the hardest time of the day to get ice time, but hopefully with the opening of more rinks that will become easier.”
“Some of the facilities are not set up for women at the moment, but it’s something that we are changing thanks to grants from the Victorian government.”
“We’re also working to ensure that women feel welcome in our sport, so we have mentor programs for young girls where they can talk to somebody that’s already involved in the sport. It’s a real community.”
For Margaret Tope, the experience of being a part of a tight-knit society is what’s most satisfying for her and her family.
“It’s beyond hockey, it’s beyond the sport, being a part of this teaches you so many other great attributes like perseverance and resilience. It’s not something that kids in Australia grow up doing so it’s all those other characteristics that develop within the individual. But most importantly we’re all here for each other.”