When American women’s hockey players threatened to boycott the world championship over a pay equity dispute with U.S.A. Hockey last month, their battle reopened an old wound for a 44-year-old Canadian woman.
Justine Blainey-Broker, now a chiropractor who runs a clinic north of Toronto, could not believe such fights were still going on 30 years after her landmark gender discrimination case.
As a teenager, she endured a protracted legal battle over her exclusion from a boys’ team in the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League. In 1986, Blainey-Broker’s case reached the Ontario Court of Appeals, which ruled in her favor. Canada’s Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.
When looking back at her court victory years later, she said, she felt like the Jackie Robinson of women’s hockey.
In 1981, her first coach, Danny Damario, had stood up for her and awarded her a roster spot in an open minor peewee tryout. But the league would not allow her to take the ice.
“I’ll never forget him because that took a lot of guts,” Blainey-Broker said. “If you were a good player, that’s all that mattered.”
During the legal battle, she managed to compete with the boys in some exhibition games and tournaments in the United States, concealing her identity with the name Justin. After she prevailed in court, Blainey-Broker played three years of boys’ hockey in the bantam, minor midget and midget divisions.
Her activism did not stop there. In the early 1990s, Blainey-Broker led a one-woman campaign to save the University of Toronto women’s hockey program.
But the fight by the American players made clear to her the discrimination that female hockey players still face.
“Three steps forward and three steps back,” Blainey-Broker said. “These athletes are living very poorly and you’re expecting them to eat healthy, train healthy, get proper sleep.”
Blainey-Broker paid a price for her fight. She said she was abused verbally and physically. Parents threw coffee and popcorn at her. She would keep herself from crying at the rink, but her tears poured out once she got home.
Blainey-Broker said most of her male teammates were good to her, but parents and other girls were the meanest.
Even organizers of women’s hockey programs opposed her, she said. They thought that if girls could play hockey with the boys, girls would flood boys’ teams and hollow out women’s hockey programs, Blainey-Broker said.
“I only found out later that the girls had meetings with four adults to one girl, telling them to sign a petition to say I was destroying girls’ hockey,” she said.
While her case was going on, she was so skilled that she played several levels above her age group in women’s hockey, meaning she had teammates who were of drinking age.
“I was drinking by the time I was 12,” she said.
By the time she was 14, she was drinking a case of beer in one sitting.
“I used to hide alcohol in shampoo bottles on school trips,” she said.
Blainey-Broker was inspired to play boys’ hockey by her brother, David, who was 10 months younger than she. She saw that he got more practice time, more games and better coaching.
“I kept saying, ‘I want what he has,'” Blainey-Broker said. “And my brother said, ‘Why don’t you fight for it?’ We always wanted things fair in the house. Even to the extent that if I had to do the dishes, then you have to do something.”
Her mother, Caroline, who was a single parent, asked why she was not happy playing with the girls.
“It took a while to turn my mom around,” Blainey-Broker said. “Then she helped me write a letter to the newspapers.”
A reporter who had read her plea put Blainey-Broker in touch with a lawyer, Anna Fraser, who took on her case pro bono.
“When people ask me, ‘How did you get through this?’ I owe it to my mom’s advice,” Blainey-Broker said. “She would tell me, ‘This is a tough day. Sleep on it. And if you think you can handle it tomorrow, go on.’ I’d want to quit, but I’d sleep on it, and the next morning it seemed brighter and I could handle another day. I still use that advice today.”
Blainey-Broker’s daughter, Yohanna, 16, is a national-level figure skater, and her son, Theo, 14, plays Class AA hockey in a league that includes female players.
“They’re holding their own,” Blainey-Broker said.
Today, Blainey-Broker plays with her husband on a men’s recreational team and also plays competitive senior women’s hockey with the Brampton Cougars.
The Blainey-Broker decision opened the doors for girls. Women’s hockey has grown more competitive, but it is not uncommon for girls in Canada and the United States to play with boys. In the Greater Toronto Hockey League, which is the largest minor hockey league in the world with 40,000 participants on 587 competitive teams and another 2,400 house league teams, nearly 100 girls played alongside male teammates.
Several women have played professionally in men’s leagues in North America and Europe, including Shannon Szabados, the goalie for the Canadian national team.
Blainey-Broker mourns that hockey equality seems to be a long way off, but she is heartened by the willingness of the American women to put so much on the line for equity.
“If you love the game, you find a way,” Blainey-Broker said, “and I think that’s what’s amazing about women’s hockey. They find a way, whether they have to beg, borrow or steal. In women’s hockey, they have to fight harder and claw their way toward support.”