Canadian women’s football league smashing barriers while fuelling passion for the sport

Football is a passion in Sam Matheson’s family.

For one season Matheson, her sisters Makenna and Kendal, and her mother Crystal all played for the Saskatoon Valkyries of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League.

“It was really a time of bonding for us,” Matheson said. “In football you usually bond with your teammates. But that gave our family a special aspect of having extra time to spend together outside of the home.

“It was a really fun time.”

With Sam a running back and Crystal a defensive back, the two were able to settle some mother-daughter issues.

“Sometimes when we practised, we would kind of go at each other,” chuckled Matheson, who played college soccer with the University of Saskatchewan.

Sam Matheson, left, and sister Kendal, right, hoist their mother Crystal who holds the WWCFL championship trophy in 2016. (Submitted by Sam Matheson)

Sam and Makenna still play for the Valkyries. After two years as a player, Crystal is now the team’s equipment manager.

The WWCFL is a full-contact, seven-team league which began play in the spring of 2011. The teams play 12-woman tackle football using rules similar to the Canadian Football League. The COVID-19 pandemic forced a cancellation of this season but some of the teams have already held training camps with an eye on playing next year.

Besides Saskatoon, there is the Regina Riot, Calgary Rage, Edmonton Storm, Lethbridge Steel, and two Winnipeg teams, the Fearless and Wolfpack.

Women’s football gained attention last month when Emmarae Dale, a linebacker who helped the Valkyries win WWCFL titles in 2016 and 2019, became the first female player to join the Saskatoon Hilltops, who play in the Prairie Football Conference of the Canadian Junior Football League.

WATCH | Emmarae Dale to suit up as first woman in CJFL history:

Emmarae Dale is the first woman to earn a spot in the Canadian Junior Football League. The 22-year-old linebacker who stands just over five feet, six inches, will suit up for the Saskatoon Hilltops. 2:43

“It just shows women can do this,” said Jaime Lammerding, the Valkyries’ president and a defensive lineman with the team. “Some people who think women aren’t as talented as players, that helps put them to rest a little bit.”

Adrienne Zuck is an acute care nurse who has played for the Regina Riot since the team formed in 2011. She sees a correlation between winning games on the field and saving lives in a hospital.

“Communication is probably one of the bigger ones,” said Zuck, a linebacker who has a four-year-old daughter and is expecting again in February. “Trusting your teammates [and] your colleagues is huge.

“When you establish that team atmosphere you know peoples’ abilities, you can foresee who can handle things or who is going to need help during this day or on this play.”

Regina Riot linebacker Adrienne Zuck, who doubles as an acute care nurse, poses with her daughter. (Submitted by Adrienne Zuck)

Zuck is a former wrestler who earned a university scholarship. She liked the physicality of football but said there were other adjustments.

“I really had to put a lot of training and practise into catching, because I had never played a ball sport before,” she said.

Women united

Brittany Boschman has played both on the offensive and defensive lines for the Riot. A former rugby and basketball player, she admitted to being nervous when she first stepped on a football field but quickly fell in love with the sport.

“I like the competitive atmosphere that football brings,” Boschman said. “Football is really unique in that there’s so many people on one team. I’ve never had that big a team before, so to see so many women united and playing for a spot at the championship is really amazing.”

Boschman, who was born in Brandon, Man., believes her Indigenous heritage helps fuel her passion for football.

“I can draw some of my strength from my Cree roots,” she said. “Throughout history, Cree people were known for their warrior societies and were strong and resilient in what they did. I feel like I carry that with me when I play.”

Regina Riot’s Brittany Boschman, who has played both offensive and defensive line, said she quickly fell in love with the sport of football after overcoming her initial nerves. (Submitted by Brittany Boschman)

Head coach Kris Hadesbeck has been with the Riot since the team’s formation. He said there has been a steady improvement in the quality of play.

“Year to year you see the level of play has improved across the league, whether it’s quarterback or the speed of the game,” Hadesbeck said. “I think with more women athletes interested in playing football, it’s raised that level.”

Dale joining the Hilltops is proof of the league’s talent.

“She is one of the best players in the country,” Hadesbeck said. “We’ve gotten to see more of those type of athletes.”

Women have broken down many barriers in sport, but it can still raise eyebrows when one says she plays football.

“I think there’s always been a kind of a taboo that women shouldn’t be doing contact stuff,” Lammerding said. “If women want to play sports, they’re going to find a way to do it.”

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