Murray Costello at his Ottawa home last week. (Julie Oliver/Ottawa Citizen)
Photograph by: Julie Oliver, Ottawa Citizen
When the women’s world hockey championships return to Ottawa in 2013, the event will owe a debt to an interesting trio.
Namely: The late International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch; former Hockey Canada president Murray Costello of Ottawa, who retired from his IIHF council vice president position effective Sept. 30; and Pat Reid, a promoter and administrator who decided back in 1990 that Canada’s female hockey players would be pretty in pink.
Women’s hockey has grown exponentially in this country, at all levels. From 8,000 girls registered in hockey programs in 1990, there are nearly 90,000 girls and women playing today. As they would say on Twitter, the women’s game is trending. Earlier this month, Sport Canada announced it would provide $500,000 for the 2013 women’s worlds, to be hosted at Scotiabank Place and the Nepean Sportsplex. Boldly, local organizers and Hockey Canada staff have already announced plans to smash all previous attendance records for women’s hockey. Packages for all games start at $184 and upward.
It’s a far cry from the situation 22 years ago, when a Samaranch suggestion and pink jerseys got the ball rolling for a women’s game that Costello admits had few believers at the time.
“The guy who really deserves credit for women’s hockey is Samaranch,” says Costello, who was then-president of Hockey Canada’s precursor, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. “Samaranch came to the IIHF (International Ice Hockey Federation) and said ‘look, we need more women athletes in the Winter Olympics, we don’t have a balanced opportunity for as many females as males, why don’t you guys take on women’s hockey? And if you get it moving in a reasonable way, in some of your federations, I’ll fast track it into the Olympics.”
That’s precisely what led to the day in Nagano, late February, 1998, when USA captain Cammi Granato became the first woman to receive an Olympic gold medal in ice hockey, after a Canadian loss that fuelled fires on both sides of the border for years to come.
First, though, there had to be a seed planted. Gunther Sabetzki, the IIHF president in 1990, asked Costello to set up an inaugural women’s world championship in Canada, knowing if it didn’t fly here, it wouldn’t fly anywhere. But still, women’s hockey?
“It was tough getting publicity in advance on it because nobody really believed women could play the game at a high level,” says Costello, now a devout proponent of the skill and pace of the women’s international game.
Twenty-two years ago, though, there wasn’t much momentum, outside of a few strong provincial women’s programs, and certainly the Canadian public rarely paid to watch women play. Now there was a host of tournament games to be sold, at a Civic Centre with 10,500 seats to fill. Costello picked Ottawa as the site because the CAHA offices were here. It saved costs.
Pat Reid, a former staffer at Sport Canada and the CAHA with a history of promoting professional track and field events, came to Costello and a CAHA vice-president of programs named Bob Nicholson with an idea: What if the women wore pink hockey jerseys as a way to draw attention? Nicholson hit the roof. (“Only time I ever got into an F-U argument with Murray,” Nicholson says today, with a laugh). Costello was torn, understanding the need for publicity but sympathizing with Nicholson, telling Reid: “If you go to pink uniforms in a time of women’s rights, we’ll get crucified on this.”
Finally, Costello relented to the point of telling Reid that if the Canadian players agreed, he could go with the pink jerseys. As we know, the women approved, giving the publicity-hungry Reid the green light to set up a photo op on Parliament Hill.
“So we got this ungodly looking pink uniform with white satin pants and we got the players dressed up and took pictures of it, and the day we released all that, I think it played in every newspaper across the country,” Costello says.
Pink Power was born. And Team Canada players continue to tap its strength. Think of that the next time you see male hockey or football players wearing pink adornments in support of the battle against breast cancer. It may have started in Ottawa, March, 1990.
The photos of the women in pink caused a stir in the House of Commons, where some MPs felt it was ludicrous for a Canadian team to be wearing pink instead of the traditional red and white.
“All of a sudden, people knew there was a women’s event,” Costello says.
The Canadian effort could do no wrong, it seemed. In the finale, a crowd of 8,784 fans — many waving pink pompoms — saw Canada beat the USA 5-2 on the strength of a highlight reel goal by Geraldine Heaney. Costello can’t forget the image of mothers and daughters walking into the arena, hand in hand, for that game. Not fathers and sons, mothers and girls.
The women’s game was on the map.
WHAT A RIDE FOR MURRAY
Hockey provided Costello a lifelong ride he couldn’t have imagined growing up in tiny South Porcupine, Ont. Murray followed the path of his older brother Les to play hockey and study at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, then to a four-year NHL career in the 1950s with Chicago, Boston and Detroit.
There were no lockout issues in those days. Teams ruled with fists of iron and players were serfs. Even a superstar like Gordie Howe received a team jacket in lieu of a raise in salary.
“Not only were there no lockouts, there were no arguments of anything,” says Costello, laughing. “They (owners) did what they wanted and we followed.”
And yet players never had more fun.
“That was a wonderful experience,” Costello says. “Still travelling by train, and all, and guys knowing each other as well as they did — it was a privilege being on the same ice as guys like Rocket (Richard) and (Jean) Beliveau, Gordie and (Ted) Lindsay and all the rest.”
Long before hockey players made millions, they worked summer jobs to make ends meet. Or, got real jobs. Costello, a smart student as well as a centreman, left the NHL at age 24 to attend the University of Windsor in 1958. It was there that he met his future wife, Denise.
By the late 1960s, the Costellos had moved to Ottawa, where Murray took on a contract position with the CAHA and enrolled in law courses at the University of Ottawa. By 1979, Costello became the CAHA’s first president, with a mandate to merge the CAHA with the existing Hockey Canada, run by Alan Eagleson.
Mission accomplished. Today, Nicholson — Costello’s heir — heads a fabulously wealthy Hockey Canada that oversees everything from grassroots minor hockey to Canada’s Olympic team, comprised of the best NHL players (lockout willing).
“I credit Bill Hay, he’s the one who broke ranks with Hockey Canada and said we’ve got to do something about hockey development,” Costello says of the CAHA/Hockey Canada merger. “Once the two organizations came together, everything changed. Everything was tied to the development system, and it really took off.”
Costello launched the Program Of Excellence that led to Canada’s outstanding world junior hockey program, and worked with Walter Bush and USA Hockey, sharing coaching programs and helping the Americans get established as a hockey nation. For those efforts, Costello was presented recently with USA Hockey’s Wayne Gretzky International Award.
“When you’re recognized outside your own country by another federation, that makes it special,” Costello says. “And if you’re Canadian, when you’re given an award with Wayne Gretzky’s name attached to it, that gives it extraordinary meaning in our game because his name is still golden in every city and borough across the land.”
Reflecting on his years as Hockey Canada chief, from 1979-98, Costello takes special pride in three achievements:
1. Directing the merger of Hockey Canada and the CAHA into the Hockey Canada we have today.
2. Starting the Program of Excellence in the junior game, by convincing major junior franchises (with the help of Ed Chynoweth) to give up their top players at Christmas time to represent Canada in the world junior tournament.
3. Launching elite-level women’s hockey in Canada.
While Costello will remain on the Hockey Hockey Hall of Fame board of directors, the Hall of Famer himself is going to enjoy catching up with his family for a while.
“The timing is right,” Costello says. “It’s been a long haul, but a good one.”
“We’re going to make sure he’s around,” Nicholson says of his mentor. It was due to the quality of Costello that Nicholson moved from B.C. to Ottawa from 1991-97 in a vice president position with the CAHA. Hockey Canada offices are now based in Calgary.
“It was working with Murray that convinced me to go,” Nicholson says. “One of the best things I ever did was to go and work with him, learn from him, just because of who he is and what he stands for. With Murray, it was always the game first.”
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