COVID has reminded me that ringette — so much more than a hockey lookalike — is my passion and my family

Christianna Alexiou has been playing ringette for 14 years. [Photo © Christianna Alexiou]

When I’m talking to someone new about the sport that I love, the sport that has shaped me as a person, I often catch myself saying, “It’s a bit like ice hockey.”

Having played ringette for 14 years, I can say with confidence that the sport is much more than a hockey double. And it’s a big part of my life — a sporting passion that I cherish more than ever, after nearly two years of pandemic disruption, including the most recent suspension of play — until at least January 3 — announced by Ringette Ontario on December 18.

Ringette is played on an ice surface with five field players – a center, two forwards and two defenders – and a goaltender. The ultimate goal is to surpass the opposing team and each goal is worth one point. Some ringette gear is also similar to hockey gear, such as helmets, neck guards, elbow pads, shin guards, and of course skates. Growing up, I always used my brother’s used hockey toys.

But ringette sticks don’t have blades, so we can poke the rubber ring we have instead of a puck. We wear belts and striped pants instead of hockey pants. And we get thrown in the penalty box by the referee if we score a goal because ringette is a contactless sport.

The rules of ringette are also very different from hockey. Players must stay out of the goaltender’s circle, run the ring over each blue line – but not both – and ensure only three players on each team pass the ringette line.

The ringette line is not used in hockey but is an important part of the ringette. [Graphic © Christianna Alexiou]

Because of these rules, there is no offside, allowing players to work together as a team. In fact, a player cannot walk the entire rink alone with the ring and try to score.

So Ringette is not a one-player sport; The team works together to win. My friend recently told me how strange it is that in ringette, like hockey, we record the scorer and two assists on the scoresheet when a goal is scored. Even if it’s worth scoring a goal, in Ringette you usually owe it to at least one other player.

Striving for collaboration is not just part of the rules, it is the foundation and vitality of the sport itself.

14 years in the making

I’ve been playing ringette since I was seven years old. My mother often recalls how mesmerized she was by my skating. When I was five, my parents first enrolled me in CanSkate, a beginner skating program.

I remember that I bought skates with my father, who of course – as a hockey player – wanted to equip me with skates. However, I had something else in mind. I wanted pretty white skates.

During my first CanSkate session my feet started to hurt and everything just felt bad. In the middle of the session, I left the ice and started complaining to my father. At the next training session, my father fitted my brother’s old hockey skates to me. When I stepped onto the ice for the second time, I was immediately relieved.

One of the coaches at the sessions, who was also a figure skating instructor, approached my parents about enrolling me in private figure skating lessons because of my natural ability. But my parents politely declined because they wanted me to do a team sport.

A few years later, one of my mother’s best friends, whom she met the year I was born, invited us to see her daughter’s game of Ringette. Her daughter, who was also one of my best friends, played for the Nepean Ravens. I still remember her royal blue striped pants.

A photo of Christianna Alexiou, about 11 years old, playing for the City of Ottawa Ringette Association. [Photo © Geoff Murphy and Fuencisla Leal-Santiago]

I was mesmerized throughout the game. After that, my mother and I went to the team’s dressing room to listen to their coach’s speech. I even got some oranges, just like the rest of the players – a post-game staple. It made me feel like I already belonged.

My mother later asked me what I thought of it and if I wanted to try Ringette too. I was immediately hooked and agreed. I’ve been in love with the game ever since.

I’ve played many sports – soccer, golf, volleyball, field hockey, cross-country skiing, track and field, basketball – but Ringette’s momentum has always been second to none. Maybe it’s because it’s a woman-centric sport, which felt empowering, or because it was invented in Canada.

The story behind ringette

Ringette was founded in 1963 by Sam Jacks, who was elected President of the Society of Directors of Municipal Recreation of Ontario. He wanted to develop an on-ice game for women that promotes movement and participation. Inspiration came from his three sons – Barry, Bruce and Brian – who played hockey.

I remember meeting Jack’s son Brian when I was in high school. He was at Kanata Golf and Country Club, where my father usually plays. As a competitive ringette player, I was struck by the stars and felt like I was encountering a living part of ringette history.

It also puts into perspective how new the sport is. The game is still adapting and different now than when I played as a kid. Recently, some of my teammates and I laughed at how someone used the term ‘tweens’ to refer to what is now known as U14, the level for 13-year-olds and under. In my day the levels were Bunnies, Novice, Petite, Tweens, Junior, Belle, Open and Masters. Now let’s just say U9, U10, U12, U14, U16, U19, Open and Masters.

In 2016, Christianna Alexiou played U16 AA for the City of Ottawa Ringette Association. This was one of the team’s huddles. [Photo © Sima Farah]

Although Ringette is a sport that anyone can join, inclusivity is still something Ringette Canada, the national sporting organization, is working towards. In June 2021, Ringette Canada updated its transgender inclusion policy “to address gaps that excluded players who identify as transgender males or non-binary”.

Several organizations, including the association I played with as a kid, the City of Ottawa Ringette Association, now have Ringette for All – a league for children of varying physical or cognitive abilities.

Kim Gurtler, the co-founder of Ringette for All, was a parent, coach and assistant coach for several teams I played on as a kid. I think that really speaks to the strong sense of community that Ringette fosters. Ringette, especially in Ottawa, is a fairly close-knit community. Everyone knows everyone. One of my best friends today is someone I met through Ringette.

A game for life

I now play for Ottawa Avalanche, a team registered with the Gloucester & Area Adult Ringette Association, at the Open A-Level – one of the highest levels of adult ringette. I coach and volunteer for CORA whenever I can; It’s so exciting to see young players fall in love with Ringette.

Before the pandemic, my team was training for the Open A provincials – we finished first in Ottawa and second in Ontario. But because of the pandemic, all ringette games and practices have been canceled. It wasn’t until September, nearly two years after everything shut down, that my team returned to play for several months this fall.

It was extremely difficult not playing with my teammates for so long, who I consider my family. Many of us rely on Ringette not only for our physical health but also for our mental health, so the transition to “Off” has been a very difficult one.

Playing Ringette under the COVID-19 protocols has been different and remains unpredictable. In the fall, players were required to complete symptom screening questionnaires and provide proof of vaccination before entering arenas. In the dressing room, we left our masks on until we put on our helmets. We stopped shaking hands with the opposing team after games; Instead, we stood on our respective blue lines and smacked the ice with our sticks in a mutual sporting demonstration.

The latest wave of COVID-19 has suspended play again, but Ringette will hopefully resume early in the new year.

I can’t wait to get into the dressing room, smelly as it is, to see the beaming faces of my teammates again. I look forward to getting back on the ice together, ready for action, inspired by an incredible coach.

Once the Omicron threat subsides, we should start training again for tournaments, leagues, and provincials. Whenever we can, we meet to practice. And I will be happy to be reunited once again with the most wonderful group of women I have ever known.

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