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Marian-84

By Ian Kennedy

The lake was frozen, the sky was a brilliant blue and mounds of snow surrounded the cleared surface forming a picturesque scene for an outdoor rink. Marian Coveny had her skates on, and she was smiling with her friends as the sound of their blades cutting the ice pierced the frigid air. It was a moment of respite, an intermission in between four months of brutal chemotherapy treatments in late 2020.

Coveny was no stranger to competition, but she was in a different fight now in her battle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Yet on the ice that day, she was in her element, just as she had been since she was a kid.

Marian, or Mern as she is known to friends, grew up skating outdoors. As a child, she’d skate with her sisters along the creek behind the family farmhouse all the way to school. That creek was an arena long before Marian, the youngest of 10 children, could join the games. For hours on end, her siblings and cousins would scrimmage and shoot pucks back and forth under a bridge on the frozen creek near their home while Marian absorbed the action. When she was finally old enough to join, her family quickly saw that she was made for hockey.

Her story has remained largely untold, despite the fact that long before hockey legends like Hayley Wickenheiser, Cassie Campbell and Marie-Philip Poulin, the first woman to ever wear the ‘C’ for Team Canada was Marian Coveny.

Raised in a tiny farming village called Electric, three hours southwest of Toronto near Wallaceburg, Ont., Coveny was born into a family of athletes. As a family, the Covenys loved sports, especially baseball. The family name was synonymous with championship fastball teams in the area, and Marian excelled on the diamond. During her childhood years, fastball and softball were acceptable forms of sport for women and girls. But other than the outdoor creeks dividing farmers’ fields, there was no place for them to play hockey.

At four years old, Marian started pushing around an old metal chair on a pair of bob skates along Bear Creek. Soon, she advanced to figure skates. And to help her along, her father filed the toe picks off so that they would more closely mimic the hockey skates Marian dreamed of having. In a family of 10, Marian would use and make do with such hand-me-downs until she was a teenager.

“Every Christmas I would ask for a hockey stick and puck and hoped for new skates,” Coveny said. “However, my first pair of new skates I purchased on my own when I started playing organized hockey. Up until then, we just shared skates with my family.”

Coveny did not get to play organized hockey until she entered high school. Her sister Carmen had been invited by a friend to play for a new team, but it was Marian who couldn’t wait to suit up with her first official team, the Wallaceburg Hornettes.

“I was extremely interested and jumped at the opportunity as soon as my mom said it was okay,” she said. “I remember absolutely loving playing the game of hockey since stepping on the ice for the first time in Wallaceburg.”

After her first practice, there was no looking back.

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Twenty years before Coveny would become Canada’s first captain, the Wallaceburg Hornettes were part of Ontario’s first ever women’s hockey tournament in 1967. The Lipstick Tournament, as it was called, quickly became one of the oldest and longest running women’s hockey tournaments in Canada and was later dubbed the North American Women’s Hockey Championship. Coveny starred for her hometown, leading the Hornettes to a ‘B’ division title in 1972 in front of a packed crowd.

“My fondest memories are all to do with the Lipstick Tournament,” Coveny said. “I remember when I was young, the big teams from Toronto would come in and I would watch their games and hope that someday I might be able to play at that level. They were an inspiration to me.”

Before too long, many of these women would be Coveny’s teammates.

From the Hornettes, Coveny moved on to play OWIAA hockey for McMaster University, leading the Marauders to a pair of Ontario championships in 1976 and 1978. On the long bus rides with McMaster, Coveny would play her guitar and sing with teammates. She’d already come a long way since skating on the creek behind her house, but the best was yet to come, as her contributions to the school would later earn Coveny induction into the McMaster Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002. While at McMaster, Coveny also became a founding member of the Hamilton Golden Hawks in 1977, and following her graduation she became a physical education teacher.

In the 1980s, Coveny would return to the Lipstick Tournament, which by then had become the Ontario provincial tournament, crowning a provincial champ and deciding Ontario’s representative for nationals. Coveny would win the ‘A’ division title multiple times, first with Mississauga and then with Hamilton, earning MVP honors at the 1981 tournament. Winning back-to-back Lipstick Tournaments in 1984 and 1985, the powerhouse Golden Hawks parlayed their provincial titles into silver and bronze medals at nationals in those years.

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The following year, Coveny and Hamilton finally got over the hump, winning their first national championship. During the 1986 tournament, Coveny scored two goals, while future Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James scored a hat trick for Hamilton in the national championship gold medal game, as they defeated Saskatchewan’s Maidstone Saskies 7-2 to capture the Abby Hoffman Cup.

Yet despite the growth of the women’s game, barriers still existed. Men’s hockey was given favor and resources, while women’s hockey remained an afterthought, mocked in the media. Coveny, however, was not prepared to let anyone, or anything, get in the way of playing the game she loved. Like the end of a long day skating on a creek in her childhood, Coveny and her team would have to be pried off the ice.

Once during a Golden Hawks game, with the third period still underway, the arena buzzer sounded signaling their ice time was up. The team had been forced to start late after a men’s team ran over time, and another men’s team was now waiting to take the ice. But for Coveny, the game wasn’t over. As the Zamboni driver opened the door and brought the machine onto the ice, Coveny wouldn’t allow it. She chased the Zamboni down the ice, jumped aboard and demanded the driver get off the ice so that the game could finish.

When she wasn’t fighting for opportunities to play, Coveny was pushing herself to lead by example, and to be the best in the burgeoning world of women’s hockey. She was obsessed with working out, weightlifting and running in order to be at the top of her game. In doing so, she saw what others didn’t. She saw possibilities for herself and for the sport.

“She worked out so hard to improve her game,” said former teammate Sharon Sanderson. “She was very serious, and she just loved the game.”

Coveny’s personal drive coincided perfectly with a plan to take women’s hockey beyond the provincial and national level, with the introduction of an international tournament. Even though the IIHF had refused to sanction a women’s tournament, organizers forged forward with a plan for the first Women’s World Hockey Tournament in 1987.

For the inaugural tournament, the winner of the Canadian national championship would get the honor of representing the country on the world stage. With Team Canada on the line, Coveny was determined to get her team back to the nationals.

“What was most impressive about Mern was just her leadership,” said former teammate Pat White. “She would drag our team on her back if she needed to in order to win, or if we set a goal. Our goal at the beginning of the year was always to get to the nationals, and when we found out about the World Tournament in ’87, that was our next goal. (Coveny) was just laser focused. She demanded a lot from the team, but nobody worked harder than her. She would skate through a brick wall if it meant succeeding.”

The 1987 national championship took place in Riverview, New Brunswick. Hamilton entered as the reigning champion, and again would not be stopped. That year, it was the formidable Edmonton Chimos, perennially one of the top teams in the country, that would attempt to stop the Golden Hawks in the gold medal game. Hamilton, however, would prevail 3-2 in overtime, and with that instantly became Team Canada. Now, as the longtime captain of the Golden Hawks, Coveny was set to become the first captain of a Canadian women’s national team.

Leading up to the tournament, however, the opportunity, according to tournament organizer Fran Rider, almost never came to fruition.

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“We were struggling so much, and then West Germany pulled out of the tournament,” Rider said. “I was making the call the next day to pull the plug. There were so many obstacles we faced, and so many people against it.”

The decision to cancel the tournament was looming, until Coveny stepped in. At the time, Rider was playing for the Brampton Canadettes, and that night they were playing against Coveny and the Golden Hawks in a league game.

“Every shift we were out there, of course we were trying to win, but Mern was coming up to me…Mern kept saying, ‘It’s going to happen, isn’t it,’ ” Rider recalled. “I’ll never forget that game and the look in Mern’s eyes. I just skated away, and the next day we revamped everything, and said, ‘It’s not over yet.’ ”

And so the World Hockey Tournament went on, even without the IIHF, which wouldn’t sanction the first World Women’s Hockey Championship until three years later. The ’87 tournament, held in Toronto, featured teams from six countries, with an additional entry from Ontario. The Ontario team was the Mississauga Warriors, who Hamilton had defeated that year in the Lipstick final to earn a spot at the nationals.

For Coveny, the tournament was a dream come true, and she was acutely aware of the gravitas of the situation. As she stepped onto the ice for Canada’s first game of the tournament, the first game ever played by a Canadian women’s national team, Coveny said aloud that she was taking “one giant step for womankind.” And she was.

“I didn’t think anyone heard me,” Coveny told reporters at the game. “To think that I am the captain of Team Canada just blows my mind.”

In their opening game against Switzerland, not only did Coveny step on the ice as the first ever captain of Team Canada, she also scored the first goal in national team history in what would turn out to be a lopsided 10-0 win.

“She was a keener from the word go, very intense, I never saw someone get so excited about hockey games,” Sanderson said. “I think hockey excited her more than anything in this world to be honest.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Team Canada and Hamilton manager Jackie Hughes.

“Mern was the most competitive person I’ve ever met in my life,” Hughes said. “But she just wanted to win every time those blades touched the ice. She was a great playmaker, and she wanted the puck all the time. Mern put her heart and soul into the game of hockey. It was the most important thing in her life besides family, friends and her teaching. She was the captain of Team Canada, and she led us that way. She always wanted to win, losing was never an option. She hated to lose.”

Perhaps that’s why Team Canada went undefeated in that first world tournament.

Coveny led Canada to a gold medal, ousting Sweden in the semifinals before beating the Ontario entry 4-0 for the gold. That Ontario team included hockey legends Angela James and Geraldine Heaney. James, who would go on to captain Team Canada herself, and Heaney were two of the first three women, along the USA’s Cammi Granato, to be inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“We opened a lot of people’s eyes about women’s hockey,” Coveny said in the moments following Canada’s win.

Reflecting back on it, Coveny called the event “a story of a lifetime.”

“Being part of Team Canada was huge for me,” she said. “Growing up in rural Southern Ontario, I only dreamed of being able to ‘play’ hockey, never imagining I would ever play for a Team Canada. I was thrilled for myself but also for so many other women that I had played with and against over the years that we were given the opportunity to play in a world tournament.”

Coveny would not be part of the 1990 Team Canada that would earn the bulk of hockey history’s recognition at the first IIHF sanctioned tournament, but her impact on the game remains. Coveny believed in women’s hockey, and she knew the 1987 tournament was only the beginning.

“She played the game for all the right reasons,” White said. “She was just always very conscious of the image of women’s hockey. It was almost as if she knew it was going places.

Despite her historic role as Canada’s first captain, Canada’s first goal-scorer and the leader of Canada’s first gold-medal winning team, Coveny and her teammates have toiled in the shadows of hockey history.

“I don’t think Mern ever got the recognition she deserved,” Hughes said. “For being the captain that she was, the player that she was and the part of her life that she dedicated to this sport.”

According to Rider, who would become a founder of the Ontario Women’s Hockey Association and would later receive the Order of Canada for her efforts in the game, Coveny’s impact at that tournament and on the history of women’s hockey runs deeper than Coveny, the consummate team player, will ever admit.

“So much was on her shoulders for her own team, for her country,” Rider said. “Finally, we had women playing hockey for Canada. That means a lot, when you put on the jersey and play for this country.

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“She made a difference. The future of the game revolved around her. She wasn’t just playing for an event, she wasn’t just playing for a championship, she was playing for the future of the game, she was representing the future of women’s hockey. The players finally had an opportunity to show who they were and what they could do on the world stage, and Mern was the leader of that entire movement, because she was the captain of Team Canada. Canada was the center of hockey, and that was all on her shoulders, and she stepped up to the plate.”

Long after the tournament, Coveny continued playing, and even won a pair of Canadian Ball Hockey Championships. In 2020, her 55+ hockey team, which she was playing on as a 65-year-old, won their district title and had advanced to the national championships in British Columbia, before COVID-19 cancelled the event.

Coveny never wanted the game to end. As a child, she played on the creek behind her house until she could no longer see her feet in the darkness. When she joined the Wallaceburg Hornettes, McMaster Marauders and Hamilton Golden Hawks, her teammates said, “You had to pull her off the ice with a hook.” As an adult, she would chase the Zamboni from the ice to get a few more minutes with the game she loved. All she wanted was just another game, another shift, another second. She played until the day she got sick.

Like any game as an underdog, Coveny was ready to fight and prove she could beat odds. After her diagnosis in September 2020, she was given only months to live. The doctors called her their “Olympic patient.” More than a year later, in November 2021, Marian heard her name called during a Rivalry Series Game between Canada and the U.S. Announcers Cheryl Pounder acknowledged her battle, and Coveny watched the game wearing her Team Canada jersey, the one she had donned in 1987. That same week she announced to family and friends that she would be discontinuing the aggressive treatments she’d undergone for over a year fighting her cancer to focus on quality of life. As she told those closest to her, she always believed that her “life was just one big game,” and she was a winner.

Marian Coveny was Canada’s first captain, a world champion, a national champion, and an Ontario university champion. She was a groundbreaker. Coveny passed away January 6, 2022, a year she was never supposed to see, surrounded by the love of so many. Even in her final days, Mern was a leader, and an inspiration. Those things will never go away.

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