1921-22 Vancouver Amazons Women’s Hockey Team – Pioneering Puck Chasers – 2024 Inductee Spotlight

March 6, 2024

By Jason Beck

With the inaugural Professional Women’s Hockey League season currently drawing record crowds to arenas and record viewership for broadcasts, many are hopeful women’s pro hockey finally has the solid foundation it needs to succeed long term and drive growth for the women’s game worldwide. Who knows, if things keep trending in the current direction perhaps a women’s pro team could be in Vancouver’s future.

It’s not a stretch. Not many realize but it’s happened here before. The Vancouver Griffins professional women’s hockey team played three seasons from 2000-03, the first two exhibition schedules and the third in the National Women’s Hockey League. Owned by Vancouver’s Phillip DeGrandpre and West Vancouver’s Diane Nelson, the Griffins featured world class women’s players like Nancy Drolet (Canada), Julia Berg (Norway), Shelley Looney (USA), and Cammi Granato (USA), currently the assistant general manager for the Vancouver Canucks.

Even fewer realize that the rich history of women’s hockey in BC goes back over 125 years. The West Kootenays were a hotbed for women’s hockey prior to the First World War. Sandon, nearly a ghost town today, can lay claim to the first recorded BC women’s hockey team, which practiced in 1897. Perhaps the first truly prominent BC women’s team was the Rossland Ladies hockey team formed in 1900. Skating in ankle-length black dresses with gold trim and matching scarves, that year the Rossland Ladies defeated Nelson 4-0 to win the Rossland Winter Carnival’s tournament final and were crowned BC’s first female hockey champions. Playing on natural ice, the Rossland Ladies would later claim the BC women’s hockey championship four more times and remain undefeated in organized play for the next 17 years before ceasing play in 1918. Precisely a century later, they were the first women’s hockey team to be inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2018.

Rossland’s departure from BC’s women’s hockey scene coincided with the emergence of the next great BC women’s team. With International Women’s Day on March 8th upon us, in our first 2024 inductee feature let’s take a look back at the 1921-22 Vancouver Amazons women’s hockey team.

Because of the warmer climate on the coast, organized hockey—whether men’s or women’s—came later to Vancouver than in the BC Interior where natural ice for long periods could be expected annually. Until the building of Denman Arena and its’ sheet of pristine artificial ice by the Patrick brothers in Vancouver’s West End in 1911 (and smaller arenas in Victoria also in 1911 and New Westminster in 1913), hockey teams and leagues in the Vancouver area relied on brief, infrequent, and unpredictable periods of cold weather to squeeze a handful of games in each year on frozen ponds. It was hardly the most efficient way to develop players, teams, and leagues. Denman changed all of that. Suddenly you could schedule an entire season months in advance and bank on the fact there would be ice to play on. Men’s and some women’s teams began to appear and some flourished. A handful of women’s teams in Vancouver, Victoria, and New Westminster began playing one another as early as 1914. According to historian Wayne Norton, in these early years women playing on teams in the BC Interior or in the Lower Mainland were trailblazing pioneers.

“Women who played ice hockey a century ago…were courageous,” Norton wrote in his excellent 2009 book, Women on Ice: The Early Years of Women’s Hockey in Western Canada. “Society expected many things of women in Edwardian times, but a serious inclination to play a man’s game was certainly not one of them. To play ice hockey, women had either to dismiss or ignore society’s discouragements, roadblocks, and restrictions.”

By 1918, the Vancouver Ladies Hockey Team had overcome many of the above to stand as the most established and celebrated women’s team in the city. Unbeknownst to them however, a new group of young women, mostly students from King George High School in Vancouver’s West End had formed a new team. They called themselves the Amazons. Skating at nearby Denman Arena on Friday nights and watching Cyclone Taylor and the Vancouver Millionaires play on weekends, these young women had fallen in love with the speed, skill, and toughness of hockey.

In February 1918, they issued a rather audacious challenge by letter to the Vancouver Ladies “to come and get defeated at hockey.” The reaction from the more senior Vancouver Ladies to this challenge hurled at them by a group of young schoolgirls was perhaps not unexpected: “How dare they!” as the Vancouver Sun reported. The Vancouver Ladies ultimately accepted the challenge and defeated the eager Amazons in an exhibition game but walked away sporting bruises from slashes courtesy of the young upstarts. Rematches were scheduled in ensuing weeks at Denman Arena, and the Amazons gained confidence with each game. Playing a faster skating and aggressive style like they’d seen the professional Millionaires play, by the end of the season the Amazons defeated the Vancouver Ladies 1-0 on a goal by Nan Griffith to claim the city championship. “Amazons Are Now Real Hockey Champs, B’Gosh” a Vancouver Sun headline announced. Each victorious Amazons player received a silver pin as the winners’ prize put up by an enthusiastic fan. For the next decade, the Amazons were the most successful women’s hockey team in the Lower Mainland and arguably the entire province.

At first, just finding competition locally for the Amazons to play was a challenge. Early attempts to raise their level of play involved bringing challengers to Vancouver, such as playing the Alberta champion Calgary Regents in March 1919 at Denman Arena during the intermissions of a Vancouver Millionaires-Victoria Aristocrats Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) game before 5000 spectators. Calgary skated to a 2-0 victory for what the Vancouver Daily World called the ‘inter-provincial championship.’ The Amazons also began travelling farther afield to test other teams, such as playing a home-and-home series against the Seattle Vamps in March 1920, very likely the first-ever women’s international hockey game in BC and possibly the first in Canada. Both teams scored 1-0 victories on the opposition’s home ice resulting in a one-all series tie. The Province reported “the fair puck chasers mixed as freely as the pros, sticks were flying as heavy and fast as raindrops and play was exciting.”

By 1921, the Amazons were all in their early twenties or younger, most still living in Vancouver’s West End near where they had gone to school. Each team member had a full-time day job or was completing schooling for one, and none had yet married. Nan Griffith was a stenographer, while Kathleen Carson would soon be a teacher. Goaltender Amelia Voitkevic was a bank clerk, while Greta Maddison worked for the H.R. MacMillan Export Company. Phebe Senkler worked as a clerk for Imperial Oil, while younger sister Norah was training to become a registered nurse.

The Senkler sisters, it should be noted, came from one of Vancouver’s more distinguished families at that time: their grandfather was Albert Norton Richards, BC’s second Lieutenant-Governor (1876-81) and their father was well-known lawyer and King’s Counsel John Harold Senkler, who was active in several sports in town and was best known for later defending at trial Wong Foon Sing, the houseboy falsely accused of murdering Janet Smith, one of the more famous unsolved murders in Vancouver’s history.

In the early 1920s, one of the best-known women’s hockey tournaments anywhere in Canada took place each year in southwestern Alberta at the Banff Winter Carnival. In February 1921, for the first time the Amazons made the decision to travel the 30 hours by train to Banff and play for the Alpine Cup, emblematic of western Canadian women’s hockey supremacy. The Amazons marked their debut in Banff sporting distinctive new uniforms that became their trademark thereafter: white sweaters with red trim featuring bright red letters “VA” on the front, as well as matching toques, black bloomers, and striped socks. Previously the team had worn mismatched maroon and white sweaters discarded by the Vancouver Millionaires men’s players.

Accompanying the Amazons to Banff was their chaperone Catharine Patrick, the wife of Frank Patrick, former player and owner of the Vancouver Millionaires and Denman Arena. The Amazons also bolstered their line-up by adding Thelma Insley, a member of the Vancouver Ladies hockey team, to their roster for the tournament.

The Amazons, more accustomed to artificial ice, took some time to adjust to Banff’s harder natural ice as they first faced off against the Calgary Patricias on an open-air rink on the Bow River in the shadow of magnificent Mount Rundle. A Banff Winter Carnival record-breaking crowd of several hundred spectators turned out, curious to see what the visitors from the coast had to offer. They were treated to a marathon game that thrilled all watching but decided nothing. After three scoreless periods of play, the Amazons and Patricias played two more 15-minute overtime periods without a goal. Both teams were thoroughly exhausted by this point and agreed to replay the game the following day. After regulation time the next day, the teams had broken through to score but had yet to decide a winner. Calgary scored in the first period and the Amazons tied it up with a goal of their own by Nan Griffith in the second. Again, the teams went to overtime, but neither team could break the deadlock in the first 15 minutes. Finally, in the fifth period—and after more than three hours of hockey over two days—the Amazons’ Kathleen Carson scored the winner. The Vancouver Sun reported the game stood as “one of the longest hockey matches ever played” and that “credit is due both teams for their endurance and sportsmanship.”

The Amazons weren’t granted much time to celebrate their victory as the very next day in the tournament final they faced the heavily favoured Calgary Regents, winners of the Banff tournament three of the previous four years. Clearly showing the effects of their third game in three days, the Amazons were no match for the Regents, who skated to a 4-1 victory before over 500 spectators to claim their fourth Alpine Cup in five years. The Amazons’ lone goal was scored by Nan Griffith and the Calgary newspapers noted the strong play of Amazons goaltender Amelia Voitkevic. They could take some solace in the fact they had kept up with the powerful Regents in what the Calgary Herald called “one of the fastest games of hockey ever witnessed on Banff ice.”

Before catching the train back to the coast, the Amazons stayed to watch a fireworks display set off near the Banff Winter Carnival’s Ice Palace, a large castle-like building made of blocks of ice. At a Saturday evening gala dinner and dance, Amazons captain Phebe Senkler was crowned Queen of the Banff Winter Carnival. Although they left for home without the Alpine Cup, the Amazons had clearly made a significant impression in their carnival debut.

Hearing of the Amazons success—and the strong crowds in Banff—from his wife Catharine, Frank Patrick and his brother Lester saw women’s hockey as a potentially lucrative offering that could be staged at their PCHA arenas in Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle. Before the Amazons had even made it home, they quickly went about organizing a ‘West Coast Women’s Championship’ hockey series between the Amazons and women’s teams from Victoria and Seattle. The Victoria and Seattle teams didn’t technically exist but were hastily formed and immediately began practicing. Each team would play six games, facing one another twice in a home-and-away series. Games would take place alongside already-scheduled PCHA games in Vancouver, Victoria, and Seattle, the women taking the ice for ten minutes in both of the first and second intermissions and then for another 15 minutes after the PCHA games had ended. Many consider this the first-ever women’s international hockey series or league anywhere.

The Amazons, fresh off their journey to Banff and back, dominated the international series winning all four of their games without surrendering a single goal. On February 21st, they defeated the Seattle Vamps 5-0 on a hat trick by Griffith and two goals from Kathleen Carson, whose hard shots were complimented by the press including one taken from the blue line “that had considerable steam behind it and travelled in the air.” Four days later, the Amazons downed the Victoria Kewpies at Willows Arena in the capital 4-0. The return match between these two teams at Denman Arena proved the closest game of the series as the Amazons edged the Kewpies 1-0 on a late goal by Griffith despite “90 per cent of the game…played close to the visitors’ net.” Afterward Griffith and Victoria goaltender Edna Curry were presented with boxes of Purdy’s chocolates as players of the game. Having already clinched the series championship with a game to go, the Amazons ran the table defeating the Vamps in Seattle 3-0 on goals by Betty Hinds, Mrs. Skelding, and Carson. If there was any doubt as to the physicality of early women’s hockey, the Seattle Union Record called an unnamed Amazons player “a regular Cully Wilson,” a winger then with the Toronto St. Patricks and well-known for his vicious play previously with the Seattle Metropolitans. Apparently, the Amazons player in question “swung her stick dreadfully, awfully hard on the green-jerseyed back of a Vamp and was benched for five minutes. When she was released, the tall young hockeyist skated out with fire in her eye but with her ardor undampened and was sent back to the bench in eight seconds amid shrill shrieks of protest, when she repeated the attack.” If anything, it showed how passionate these early women pioneers were about the frozen game, playing as fiercely as their male counterparts. Whatever had raised their ire in the final match, with a perfect 4-0 series record the Amazons had all summer to savor their newly won title as West Coast women’s champions and another milestone for women’s hockey in BC.

Building on that success in 1922 wouldn’t be easy for the Amazons. With plans to return to the Banff Winter Carnival and improve on their runner-up finish, their preparations locally were stalled when no competition to play against could be found in Vancouver or nearby communities. They travelled to Banff having only practiced and played small-sided scrimmages amongst their own squad. The Amazons roster consisted of mostly the same players that had played in the tournament the previous year. Mrs. Beatrice Green traveled with the women as their chaperone and Guy Patrick, brother of Frank and Lester, took a short vacation from his job managing Denman Arena to accompany the team as their manager. Later that summer, Guy and Amazons player Kathleen Carson were married.

New this year for the Winter Carnival’s women’s hockey tournament was the fact the Canadian government donated a $1200 buffalo head that was to be awarded to the winning team, along with the Alpine Cup of course and individual winners medals. Among the patrons of the 1922 Carnival was none other than future Canadian prime minister R.B. Bennett, then a Calgary businessman who donated an even $100.

As the reigning Carnival Queen, Phebe Senkler was in great demand around town for parties and presentations. Lights were strung up around the boards of the outdoor rink on the Bow River providing a picturesque scene at dusk but doing little to help warm the players who bundled up and kept themselves moving to guard against the bone-chilling -30-degree temperatures. The defending champion Calgary Regents defeated a team from Red Deer to advance to the final once again, keen to claim their fourth Alpine Cup in a row. The Amazons were to face off against another Calgary team, the Byngs, who would be playing their first game against female opponents after other Calgary-area women’s teams refused to face them. Some backroom political maneuvering appeared to take place as even before the Amazons-Byngs game took place, the newspapers were reporting the game was “an exhibition” and the result would not count in the Winter Carnival tournament. If nothing else, it was a tune-up the competition-starved Amazons greatly needed. The Amazons, in their signature red and white ‘VA’ sweaters with matching toques, looked to be on track for victory when Kathleen Carson scored a goal in the second period but it was ruled offside. Then more bad luck: captain Phebe Senkler went down with a knee injury and was forced to leave the game. In the third period, the Byngs pounced on the wounded Amazons and scored the game’s only goal late despite many Vancouver chances to tie.

The Amazons regrouped for a rematch of the previous year’s Winter Carnival final against the favoured Regents from Calgary. They would do so without their captain Phebe Senkler, who it was suspected had suffered a fractured kneecap and would direct the team from the fence. In an interesting twist, to replace her the tournament organizers allowed the Amazons to pick up Helen Tees from the team that had just handed them an exhibition defeat, the Byngs.

Against the Regents the Amazons proved lucky to exit a rough first period down just 1-0. Calgary’s goal came courtesy of an Amazons’ pass deflected off a skate past goaltender Voitkevic. At one point, the Amazons were down to just six players (teams played seven-person hockey at that time) after Florence Johnson was penalized for retaliating to a shot to the head and then subsequently collapsed in the penalty box, and Nan Griffith was injured. The Amazons found themselves suddenly under siege, but The Province reported “although shot after shot was rained in, it was impossible for the Regents to penetrate the Amazons goal, owing to the ‘eagle eye’ of Amelia Voitkevic, who played a magnificent game.”

In the second period, Johnson returned and Lorraine Cannon substituted in for Griffith. The Amazons appeared rejuvenated and momentum swung in their direction as they peppered the Regents goalie with shots but couldn’t find the tying goal before the intermission. Despite being the only team from BC in the Alberta-based tournament, the Amazons were clearly the favourites of the crowd and this was never more obvious than when they returned to the ice for the third period and “were enthusiastically cheered by the spectators.” Feeding off the crowd’s loud support, Kathleen Carson collected the puck in her own end, skated up ice with purpose, broke through the Calgary defense, and scored on a wicked long shot to tie the game at 1-1. The score remained tied after three periods and on to overtime they went. Three minutes into overtime, Carson fired another blistering shot from well out and the Amazons were Alpine Cup champions, the first BC team to claim the women’s hockey championship of Western Canada, which some called “the female equivalent of the Stanley Cup.”

“Vancouver Amazons Win Ladies’ Championship” blared a full-page headline in The Calgary Albertan. The Province ran a front-page headline of “Amazons Win Alpine Cup” and in the sports section more modestly proclaimed “Amazons Win Hockey Trophy” alongside a large photo of the smiling Amazons after disembarking from the train on their arrival in Banff earlier in the tournament. Other newspapers across BC and Alberta also carried stories of the dramatic Amazons victory.

The Amazons celebrated at the Banff Winter Carnival’s annual Saturday evening dinner and dance where they received their individual winners’ medals—gold in colour with a big horn ram embossed on the front—and of course the coveted Alpine Cup.

On the train trip back to the coast the Amazons stopped to take in the annual ski jumping tournament in Revelstoke and were treated like the celebrities they now were. Newspaper reports noted that several “daring” members of the Amazons including Lorraine Cannon, Norah Senkler, and Nan Griffith, each of whom had never before been on skis, attempted runs “acquitting themselves in most creditable style.”

Back in Vancouver, upon arrival the champion Amazons were greeted by family and friends. The Alpine Cup was proudly put on display in the window of the O.B. Allan jewelry store in the Rogers building at Granville and Pender Streets alongside other prominent sports trophies for the public to view.

And just like that their dream season was over. But it had been another groundbreaking campaign for the Amazons defeating the three-time defending Banff Winter Carnival champions from the women’s hockey hotbed of Calgary where multiple women’s teams competed. Overcoming the lack of local competition, a long train journey to travel to Banff, and injuries to key players, the Amazons could hold their heads high as the first BC team to claim the Alpine Cup, the most prestigious trophy in women’s hockey in western Canada and arguably the entire country at that time. As historian Wayne Norton summed up, “It had been a year to remember.”

The Vancouver Amazons continued to play locally for the rest of the decade and travelled to the annual Banff Winter Carnival for another five years marking seven straight trips between 1921-27. This came at a time when a journey to Banff was considered a long one for most people and few BC women’s teams in any sport travelled anywhere for games. Beyond what they accomplished on the ice, the Amazons were also trailblazers in this sense, likely the first BC women’s team to travel and compete outside BC on a regular basis.

Although the Amazons returned to Banff annually until 1927, they never could quite replicate the magic of their 1922 championship. The following year as the reigning champions, the Amazons were photographed with Hollywood stars Lillian Rich and Harold Austin, as well as Strongheart the dog, a German Shepherd famous for starring in several Hollywood films. The trio were in Banff filming a new movie, The Love Master, a silent film which was released in 1924. Battling poor ice and warm conditions, the Amazons were defeated by the Fernie Swastikas, the eventual Alpine Cup champions and the second BC team in as many years to win the Banff Winter Carnival tournament.

In following years, the Amazons acquitted themselves well in Banff but often fell short, many times to the eventual tournament champions. A team photograph from 1928 indicates the Amazons were “Champions of British Columbia” and the team remained active locally in Vancouver well into the mid-1930s. But as the key Amazons players grew older, were married, and had children they moved on from hockey to other pursuits. Societal views on women in sports such as hockey also changed. Opportunities for women’s hockey grew even scarcer in Vancouver after Denman Arena burnt to the ground in 1936. After being a vital part of BC’s sports scene for the better part of 20 years from the mid-1910s until the mid-1930s, women’s hockey all but disappeared in western Canada. It would be several decades before the participation of BC women in hockey matched the heights achieved by the Amazons and others in the 1920s.

The Amazons’ story has remained largely forgotten until recently. A handful of remarkably striking photos of the Amazons and other women’s teams in action on the ice remained scattered throughout archival collections around BC providing a brief glimpse for modern viewers. Wayne Norton’s 2009 book Women on Ice cracked open the door a little wider. Current interest in the PWHL and international women’s hockey will hopefully lead to more research and work on the roots of the women’s game here in BC and across Canada.

The 1921-22 Amazons’ induction into the BC Sports Hall of Fame this spring will also no doubt help in this regard. Unearthing connections to a team and story over a century old are not easy though. Newspaper coverage even at the time was often minimal when it existed at all. All team members passed away many years ago. It took several months of digging through genealogical records and following many leads that often came to dead ends, but largely thanks to the efforts of Jim Bradbury and Jesse Coomes, curators of the King George Secondary School Archives, and Fred Hume, long-time historian of UBC Athletics and anything BC sport, family descendants of three Amazons players have now been located. Family of Phebe and Norah Senkler and Thelma (Insley) Kaye will be in attendance representing the Amazons for their hall of fame induction events later this spring. Even the families are learning the true significance of what the pioneering Amazons accomplished over a century ago.

“This induction is a recognition of a part of Canadian hockey and sports history of which I was ignorant,” said the grandson of Vancouver Amazons player Thelma (Insley) Kaye, Michael Kaye recently. “I hope this will be an inspiration to all, and especially younger Canadians, that this precedent makes women in hockey (and sport) ‘normal.’ I am thrilled by the acknowledgment and inclusion of the Vancouver Amazons—and by extension all who were playing hockey in the early days—to the BC Sports Hall of Fame.”

As part of the Class of 2024, the 1921-22 Vancouver Amazons women’s hockey team will be formally inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in the Pioneer category at the annual Banquet of Champions to be held May 16, 2024 at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver.