Several years ago, a unique concept would propel a women’s hockey team from Vancouver into a pop culture phenomenon that would also revolutionize women’s hockey. The inaugural Ice-O-Topes calendar was released in 2010 and with it came a remarkable amount of interest and news coverage.
Conceived by team member Rebecca Blissett, it was a means of fundraising that would also complement her creative and artistic talents. As a professional photographer for over a decade, Blissett has a remarkable portfolio which features works published in the likes of popular periodicals including Elle, People, Spin and national newspapers including the Globe and Mail along with the National Post. A renowned concert photographer who regularly contributes to the Georgia Straight publication, the calendar project would become a labor of love.
Once the calendar became reality, it did not take long for the media to become intrigued. Megan Stewart from the Vancouver Courier covered the story in addition to CTV Television. Suddenly, fans were asking players to autograph
copies of the calendar. Its status as a sold-out collector’s item transformed the Ice-O-Topes into one of the most famous women’s ice hockey teams in North America and it took the entire squad by surprise.
“We were really surprised at how much attention we received for the calendar. To my knowledge, there’s no other pin-up calendar featuring real female hockey players out there, so I knew the idea was original. Yet, I was so busy pulling it together, from coming up with concepts, to shooting, to distribution, that I did not think beyond just getting it done on time to think much about how it would be received.
We figured it would be a fun project that would be appreciated by our friends and at our local rink, which is Burnaby 8-Rinks. Not something that would land us on a well-known talk show in Brazil. We had absolutely no idea people would love it so much.”
The popularity of the calendar spawned editions to be released from 2011 to 2013. Blissett would incorporate her creative acumen in the 2013 edition by having players recreate some of the most famous hockey scenes in history. Of note, a women’s hockey team from Jackson Hole, Wyoming would emulate the Topes and issue their own calendar in 2012.
With partial proceeds of all editions going to the Britannia After School Hockey (BASH) program of East Vancouver, it was a thoughtful gesture that provided the Topes a chance to give back to their community. As many members of the squad had ties to the area, the opportunity to help underprivileged teens play the game was close to their hearts.
“We wanted to give partial proceeds from calendar sales to charity and giving back to the rink where many of us got our start seemed like an obvious choice. The rink is in East Vancouver and there’s a lot of struggling families in that area so we thought it was great when we heard that they were having a learn-to-play-hockey program for teenagers in the neighborhood.
The program gives teenagers, who never had the chance to play as kids, the opportunity to learn the game and we just love that idea because hockey is such a great sport but there seems to be this narrow window where if you don’t learn by a certain age, then it’s too late.
The bonus of all the media exposure the calendar has received has meant BASH has been in the spotlight, too, which has increased general awareness of the program. I know it’s expanded in the last few years to include more ice times and more kids. Jay Aikenhead, the fellow who runs things there, has done such a great job with the kids.”
In addition to the growing legend of the calendar, the Topes are also a very successful ice hockey program. Among several tournaments that they have won throughout the years, one that stands out is the Apex Shoot-Out outdoor hockey tournament in Penticton, British Columbia, which the Topes have won in 2011 and 2012.
“Playing hockey in Penticton is special because it’s outdoor ice, which is a unique thing for those of us who were born and raised in the balmy Lower Mainland of Vancouver.”
Of note, the Topes have also made a remarkable impact internationally. Competing in the Iceland Cup, the Topes have served as an integral part of making the sport grow in the tiny nation. At one edition of the Iceland Cup, the club donned a unique third uniform as they were garbed in chicken outfits, incorporating a sense of humor and an appreciation for the lighter side of the game.
With a full women’s division since 2010, the Iceland Cup also has strong Canadian roots. Sarah Smiley, a former competitor in the NWHL with the Montreal Axion is Iceland’s Director of Women’s Hockey Development. Other Canadians have included Winter Games gold medalists Sami Jo Small and her husband Billy Bridges, along with Deirdre Norman, the founder of The Women in Winter and a Game-Day Manager with the CWHL’s Toronto Furies.
“Iceland was an incredible experience; hockey is not at all popular there so there were a couple hitches in the tournament that made it all the more memorable, like the Zamboni broke down so parts had to be sent in from Sweden. One of the rinks we played on had weird groves in the ice because some kind of on-ice horse show had been held before our game.
Aside from the hockey the best thing about traveling with this team is that we have all become good friends. There’s a variety of people on our team, from border guards and pharmacists to professional musicians and activists – people who very likely wouldn’t have come to know each another if it wasn’t for being together on this hockey team.”
The remarkable friendships that have been forged on the Topes make for an enriching hockey experience. It is also an element that represents Blissett’s favorite aspect of playing with the team, “The people on the team, definitely. It’s a wonderful group of women.”
In reflecting on the earliest days of planning the calendar and preparing for the photo shoots, it reflected a new experience for several of her teammates. While at first it may have seemed like a frightening or personal move to don the ice in a scantily-clad state of dress, the result was an increase in confidence and self-esteem while knowing that their effort for charity captured the spirit of being a hockey humanitarian.
“Photographing my teammates for the 2010 calendar, which was the first time we published, was not an easy sell. Some of these girls had never seen the inside of a make-up bag so I know it was a difficult experience for them. As a side, it was really neat to give them a photograph they could be proud of.
A couple of them just did not believe they were at all photogenic until they saw their calendar photos. It did not even cross my mind this calendar project would have that kind of depth – where it would change people’s views of themselves – but it was really cool to see.”
As a show of support for the project and her teammates that offered to pose, Blissett would also appear in front of the camera. While Blissett’s internal and external beauty was captured, it was a unique experience for her.
“I ended up being one of the models, too, to walk the walk so to speak. And, I think this is the case for most photographers, I do not like being photographed. I find it odd and disconcerting so this gave me more leverage when shooting my teammates because we were in the same boat.
What was interesting is that anybody who was reluctant to do it the first time, was completely gung ho the second, third, and fourth time. They became so comfortable – and proud – of appearing in the calendar. That part made me very happy.”
Blissett’s greatest skill as a photographer may be the fact that she is able to tell a story through her images. Preserving a special moment in time, the calendar captures the confidence of the players, empowering them. Having also photographed her team’s on-ice glories, Blissett’s view behind the lens is recording the history of her team. In doing so, it has resulted in a tremendous personal and professional reward that makes Blissett and her teammates true builders in women’s hockey.
Photo credits: Rebecca Blissett Photography