Historicist: "She certainly doesn't play like a girl"

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Historicist: “She certainly doesn’t play like a girl”

The star defenceman of a boys hockey team is revealed to be a nine-year-old girl.

Abigail Hoffman (second from left, front row) and her TeePees teammates, March 8, 1956.  From the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (1974 002 / 369)

Abigail Hoffman (second from left, front row) and her TeePees teammates, March 8, 1956. From the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (1974-002 / 369).

In the winter of 1956, nine-year-old Abby Hoffman strapped on skates to play organized hockey for the first time. Playing for the TeePees, a boys team in the Toronto Hockey League, the stay-at-home defenceman excelled as a bruiser, willing to body check opponents into the boards, and was named to the league all-star team as one of the best hockey players in the city. It was only then that Hoffman’s secret was discovered: she was a girl.

(Left: Abigail Hoffman as a member of a boys hockey team, 1956. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3184.)

Abigail Hoffman just wanted to play hockey. She’d been on skates since the age of three, with a hockey stick in her hand at least as long. She idolized her two older brothers, Paul and Muni—both of whom played organized hockey in city leagues—and followed them outside for games of pick-up shinny. From them, she learned the essentials of the game on the outdoor rink at Humberside Collegiate, across the street from their house. When Abby (or “Ab”), then eight, saw a newspaper ad for a youth league based at Varsity Arena, she naturally begged her parents to find out if the Toronto Hockey League (THL) had any girls teams for her to join.

Women and girls have been playing hockey since the sport began. The game’s popularity with women athletes led to the formation of the Ladies Ontario Hockey Association in the early 1920s, drawing spectators to watch teams like Aura Lee, Wychwood, and North Toronto compete into the 1930s—albeit under rules adapted to prohibit body checking. However, in the years after the Second World War, when a refocus on youth amateur sport saw the number of kids playing organized hockey in Canada jump from 14,000 in 1930 to nearly 100,000 by 1957, girls were largely sidelined. The THL, the world’s largest youth hockey league by the early 1960s, had no girls teams at any age group in 1956—as Abby’s parents would’ve been told at registration day. In Metro Toronto in the early 1950s, the only option for girls to play organized hockey was a four-team league in East York, formed in 1949, where Todmorden, the Yorkettes, and the Shamrocks battled for supremacy.

While her parents were making inquiries about a girls team at registration day, Abby had wandered off into the crowd of 400 eager boys. Unbeknownst to her parents, she worked her way to the front of the registration line and handed over her birth certificate. Perhaps the official made assumptions based on Hoffman’s tomboyish manner and close-cropped brown hair, or perhaps they were simply too exhausted or overburdened in the pandemonium to look closely at the birth certificate. In any regard, they didn’t notice that it read “Abigail Hoffman.”

Within a short while, a phone call to the Hoffman household announced that Abby had been assigned to the St. Catharines TeePees. (Teams in each of the THL’s age groups were named for teams in the big leagues. The 11-years-olds played for teams named the New York Rangers or Detroit Red Wings of the NHL, for example, while all teams in Abby’s nine-year-olds’ division were named for the Junior “A” clubs of the Ontario Hockey Association. Despite the St. Catharines moniker, Abby’s TeePees were Toronto-based and played their games at Varsity Arena.)

Abigail Hoffman in the locker room, March 8, 1956  From the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (1974 002 / 369)

Abigail Hoffman in the locker room, March 8, 1956. From the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (1974-002 / 369).

Hearing the news that TeePees team manager Al Grossi wanted “our boy” for his team, Hoffman’s mother, Dorothy Medhurst, swallowed hard, but accepted. “We didn’t have the heart to tell him the boy was a girl and spoil her chances of playing,” Medhurst later recalled. Once she was registered, Abby was going to follow through on her commitment to play.

Medhurst and her husband, Samuel H. Hoffman, a chemist at Canadian Industries Ltd., had a very child-centered view of family life—due in large part to her professional expertise as a nursery school supervisor at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association and one of the city’s leading authorities on child development. The Hoffmans were willing to register their children for any activity so long as the child took it seriously and dedicated themselves to working hard.

Among the many pictures painted by the kids, the walls of the Hoffman house, on Glendonwynne Road in the High Park area, were covered with bulletin boards outlining the schedule of each child’s extracurriculars. At the time she registered for hockey, Abby’s other activities included the Junior Field Naturalists at the Royal Ontario Museum, piano lessons at the Royal Conservatory of Music, private art lessons, and swimming at Gus Ryder’s Lakeshore Swimming Club.

2014 10 18 Star 09Mar1956 380R

She had long disdained playing with dolls or wearing dresses or girls’ clothes—except when it came to her Brownies uniform—and preferred joining in whatever game the neighbourhood boys were playing. “I hated to be left behind,” she recalled years later, “so I’d tag along and play any type of sport with the kids on my block.” When asked, decades later, if she’d wanted to be boy, Hoffman replied: “No, I just wanted to do the things I did.”

(Right: Star [March 9, 1956].)

The only thing missing from the Hoffman household was a television set. “The children spend their time doing things, not watching them,” Samuel Hoffman once explained. “We believe in good, healthy pastimes.” And, as an unconventional, two-income, middle-class household, the family could afford the money and time required to support their children’s diverse interests.

The kids avidly followed the professional games, despite never having seen one, either in-person or on TV. Samuel Hoffman, a Polish immigrant, knew nothing of the sport until his sons and daughter insisted on playing. But soon he, too, had memorized the names of all the leading stars. “Everybody in the family is crazy about hockey,” Muni told a reporter. “Even our little brother [Benny], one-and-a-half years old, plays around with a little hockey stick.”

“I don’t think cheerleading should be the goal of a girl’s sports endeavours,” Hoffman’s father told the press after the secret was out. “She should be out there playing the same as boys.” The progressive parents figured that if sports were indeed “good for health and teaching fair play,” then they should “be good for girls as well as boys.”

Yet Samuel Hoffman insisted that his family hadn’t been out to prove anything, and was quoted by the press as saying that he generally wouldn’t recommend girls playing on boys sports teams. “It’s just a phase,” he added of Abby’s interest in hockey, undercutting the weight of her defiance of mainstream gender norms. “I think it’s something that will blow over.”

Abigail Hoffman as a member of a boys hockey team, 1956. From the City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3185.

Over the course of more than a dozen games in four months, neither her coaches nor her TeePees teammates suspected Abby was a girl. Like all other players her age, she put on most of her hockey equipment at home, leaving only the skates and team sweater for the rink, so the dressing room never posed a problem.

Abigail had two assists but no goals in helping her team to a second-place finish. “I did have one clean breakaway but I didn’t score,” she later said, sadly, of her ambition to score a goal. “I like to play defence the best because I can’t rush fast enough.”

“We switched her from forward to defence because she was a good back checker,” coach Bill Brock recalled for reporters. “I taught her how to body check and take a man out on the boards.” Team manager Grossi was somewhat embarrassed when, after the cat was out of the bag, he was interviewed by CBC Television. “It’s funny when I think of the number of times when I shouted at her to ‘Skate that fella into the boards,'” he admitted.

“I defy anyone to pick her out as a girl when the team is on the ice,” Grossi told another reporter of his 78-pound defenceman. “She skates like a boy, plays aggressively, meets the players when they come in on defence.” She had a reputation for being a bit rough with opponents.

Star (March 8, 1956)

Star (March 8, 1956).

There were a few close calls when Abby’s secret nearly leaked. Paul and Muni used “she” instead of “he” a little too loudly while cheering in the stands at one game, and talked about their little sister playing with boys a little too openly with their own hockey teammates. The father of one of Muni’s teammates—and a coach in the THL—ran into Medhurst during a TeePees game and said, with a wink, “That boy of yours is quite a hockey player.”

Had Abigail, now nine, not developed into such a good defenceman, her ruse might never have been discovered. But, in early March, Grossi felt she deserved nomination to an all-star squad representing the THL in the first annual Timmy Tyke charity hockey tournament at Scarboro Arena on March 31. This required him confirming her age once again and, when he re-examined the birth certificate, he was shocked to discover that Abby was short for Abigail.

News of the discovery spread rapidly, first in the local newspapers and on CBC Television, then being picked up by the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time. Warner-Pathé produced and distributed a documentary short, entitled He’s Not a He, He’s a She.

Relishing her instant celebrity status, Abby was firm in her conviction that she wanted to continue playing hockey with boys—or, rather, firm in her refusal to play in a second-tier league. “It’s all right,” Hoffman responded when asked if she wanted other girls to play hockey, “as long as I don’t have to play on a team with girls. Girls wouldn’t be any good.” Even at her young age, she was determined to compete at the highest level possible.

League officials were “flabbergasted” at the discovery. “It completely knocked the wind out of me,” THL chairman Earl Graham admitted to reporters. “I was amazed. No one noticed her birth certificate earlier because it was the last thing we expected. It was just in with about 400 other certificates.” He had seen her play several times himself. “It just never occurred to me that she might be a girl. She certainly doesn’t play like a girl.”

“The question of girls playing hockey with boys hadn’t even been asked yet,” Hoffman recalled in an interview in Barbara Stewart’s She Shoots… She Scores!: A Complete Guide to Women’s Hockey (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1993), “so it was not a matter of acceptance. It was a curiosity; people were incredulous. They couldn’t believe it. Most people assumed that no girl would want to play.”

Graham and other red-faced league officials quickly decided that, since there was no formal rule forbidding girls from playing, Abby could finish the season: lacing up in the THL Jamboree on March 16, and the charity all-star game on March 31. In fact, league officials hoped Abby’s presence on the ice would help sell tickets for the Jamboree at Varsity Arena, a series of youth hockey games and figure skating demonstrations held to raise funds for the THL’s youth programs. The only stipulation to Abby’s participation was that, from then on, she use Graham’s office at the arena as her private dressing room.

(Numerous sources, however, erroneously suggest that Hoffman was forced to quit hockey mid-season, or wrongly claim that her family launched legal proceedings in the Ontario Supreme Court.)

Abby’s teammates certainly didn’t care a lick that she wasn’t a boy. “Abi doesn’t look like a girl,” 10-year-old left winger and TeePees captain Jim Halliday spoke haltingly. “He—she—is just one of the gang. Good hockey player, too. I hope we don’t lose him—her, I mean.” After the league’s top scorer and top goalies received awards at the Jamboree and before the Teepees squared off against the Hamilton Tiger Cubs for a playoff game that evening, Abby’s teammates presented her with a special trophy to commemorate her season.

(Right: Star [March 17, 1956].)

It was but another in a series of accolades and gifts she received in the weeks after her secret was revealed. She received a team jacket from Frank Selke, general manager of the Montreal Canadiens. She was invited to meet Canadiens and Maple Leafs players, and named an honorary member of the Winnipeg Mustangs, a touring team then visiting Toronto.

In the wake of the Hoffman media circus, the THL was inundated with phone calls from parents asking that a girls league be established for the following season. Initially, when it was beneficial for public relations, league officials seemed supportive. “I think there are lots of young girls [who] would play in it, even my own youngster is now pestering me to join,” Ralph G. Barber, a THL executive, remarked. “And my wife wants to coach.”

In response to the overwhelming demand, the league hastily organized a hockey school for girls. Nearly 100 girls turned up for each of the three hour-long practices in late March, hoping to follow in Abigail’s footsteps. But the promised girls league for the 1956-1957 season never materialized.

There was no official announcement but, once the media gaze turned elsewhere, more conservative voices in local youth hockey circles exerted their influence. A rule was quietly passed to prohibit girls playing in boys leagues, and the THL used financial concerns as the rationale to not run a girls league. “Some of the men in the THL didn’t want it, I think. Thought it would cost too much to rent the ice,” young Abby astutely noted in a December 1956 radio interview with the CBC’s Ed Fitkin.

(Left: Star [March 22, 1956].)

Abby was already moving on from organized hockey, concentrating first on competitive swimming, then turning seriously to long-distance running as a member of the Toronto Olympic Club. Partway through high school—during which time she played semi-organized hockey on a women’s team representing Humberside Collegiate at occasional all-girls tournaments in the mid-1960s—she was already a world-class runner, winning national track championships and breaking records. She medalled at the Pan-American Games and the Commonwealth Games, and competed in four Olympic Games—carrying the flag at the opening ceremonies in Montreal in 1976.

Later, as a sports administrator and government bureaucrat, Hoffman was a champion of amateur athletes, and women athletes in particular. As a prominent supporter of establishing a women’s national hockey championship in the early 1980s, the trophy awarded to the champion was named the Abby Hoffman Cup in her honour. When Justine Blainey, a young women barred from playing on an all-boys peewee hockey team in the mid-1980s, challenged the Ontario Hockey Association in the Ontario court system in the mid-1980s, Hoffman submitted an affidavit to the court. Although Blainey received hate mail and threats and suffered verbal abuse as a result initiating the case, the Court of Appeal eventually ruled in her favour.

“I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong,” the non-conformist Hoffman reminisced of her brief boys league career decades later. “I just wanted to play hockey.”

Sources consulted: Ken Dryden, “Soul on Ice: A Century of Canadian Hockey,” The Beaver (December 2000-January 2001); M. Ann Hall, The Girl and the Game: A History of Women’s Sport in Canada (Broadview Press, 2002); Mary Keyes, “Women and Sport,” in Morrow, Keyes, Simpson, Cosentino, and Lappage, eds., A Concise History of Sport in Canada (Oxford University Press, 1989); Michael McKinley, Hockey: A People’s History (McClelland & Stewart, 2006); William Morassutti, ed., Imagining Canada: A Century of Photographs Preserved by the New York Times (Doubleday Canada, 2012); Laura Robinson, She Shoots, She Scores: Canadian Perspectives on Women and Sport (Thompson Educational Publishing, Inc., 1997); Barbara Stewart, She Shoots…She Scores!: A Complete Guide to Women’s Hockey (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1993); and articles from the Globe and Mail (April 3, 1928; November 1, 1938; March 24, 1949; January 13, 1949; March 14, 1951; March 9, 14, 22 & 29, April 4, 1956; May 11 & 15, 1957; January 16, 1962; June 28, 1963; March 23, 1970; November 29, 1976; February 12, 1977; July 26, 1978; December 10, 1983; October 19, 1991; January 24, 1992; and January 3, 2011); and the Toronto Star (March 8, 9, 15, 17, 22 & 23, 1956; January 22, March 23, 1957; November 8, 1958; November 7, 1961; January 28, 1963; January 6, 1973; February 27, 1980; and September 12, 1985).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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