As the First World War dragged on in Europe, a group of remarkable young women turned the hockey world upside down.

The Eastern Ladies Hockey League (also known as La ligue du hockey des dames de Montréal) played their first game on 13 December 1915. Six weeks later, they were the most popular and famous players in the country. American entrepreneurs offered small fortunes to lure them south for huge barnstorming tours. Even the General Manager of the legendary Montreal Canadiens conceded that,“These lady hockey players seem to be more in demand than anyone else in the city just now… Half my guys couldn’t play in this league” (Montreal Star, 2 February 1916).

The Montréal women were by no means the first or the only women to play organized hockey. The very first picture of a women’s game was taken in 1890 and featured the Governor General’s daughter Isobel Stanley wielding a stick. By the First World War, there were women’s teams and leagues in communities across Canada, and women’s hockey was popular at many post-secondary institutions (see The History of Canadian Women in Sport). However, the Eastern Ladies Hockey League was the first to achieve widespread popularity, and it was the only women’s league to achieve that elusive Holy Grail of women’s sport: commercial success.

The league was the brainchild of a Montréal promoter named Len Porteous who collaborated with P.J. Doran, owner of the Jubilee Arena on Ste. Catherine Street East, where the women played their home games. Neither was known for his feminist credentials. To them, the Eastern Ladies Hockey League was strictly a business venture. As men enlisted in the tens of thousands, the number of amateur leagues renting ice time at the Jubilee dropped off drastically. The women would, they hoped, make up for at least some of those “dark” nights. They couldn’t have dreamed of the gold mine the League would prove to be. The arena’s capacity was 3,200. It would be full every Monday night for regular league games. As the league’s popularity grew there would be more exhibition games and challenge matches. Mining every dime, Porteous cashed in on his ladies’ renown by putting them into a summer bowling league and charging 25 cents a ticket.

There were four teams when the amateur league began: the Westerns, Maisonneuves, North End Stanleys, and Telegraph. The newspapers called them “lady hockeyists.” They wore hoop skirts or bloomers with numberless jerseys and matching toques. Men’s hockey pants would have been shockingly immodest to spectators at the time. Like other women hockey players at the time, the Eastern Ladies played full-contact hockey; they also followed the National Hockey Association’s rules for men.

The composition of the teams was mixed, but seems to have been dominated by English-speaking, working-class women. There is no record of where they came from or where they had played before. The Jubilee Arena was located in the city’s east end, known at the time as “The Pittsburgh of Montreal” for its heavy industry. Papers noted large contingents of fans from “The Point” (Pointe-Saint-Charles), a neighbourhood of recent immigrants and working poor.

The “lady hockeyists” were an instant sensation. A perceptive reporter for the Montreal Star forecast their popularity in an article about the two games played that first opening night:

Anyone who wants a new sensation…had better go the jubilee rink and see the Eastern Lady hockey players…This is the real thing and if the players keep improving, the New York Hippodrome or some other amusement institution in the U.S. metropolis will whisk them away (Montreal Star, 14 December 1915).

The league was so popular that two teams, the Champetres and the Mintos, were added to the schedule before the end of the first season. The Westerns were the league champion the first two years, winning the Doran Cup for city supremacy. They were led by their star forward Agnès Vauthier, who was favourably compared to the best of the Canadiens players.

The popularity of women’s hockey soon spread to other communities. In February 1916, a newspaper in Cornwall, ON, declared women’s hockey to be “CANADA’S LEADING WINTER SPORT. Women’s Hockey All the Rage” (Cornwall Standard Freeholder, 10 February 1916). Similarly, the Montreal Star claimed that “WOMEN’S HOCKEY MOVEMENT SPREADING ACROSS THE COUNTRY” (Montreal Star, 12 January 1916). Ottawa and Cornwall formed excellent rival teams who would eventually beat the best of the Montréal teams. In fact, the Ottawa Alerts would become the first World Champions in 1917, defeating the Pittsburgh Polar Maids three games to one. (Women’s hockey had become popular in the United States as well.)

However, it was the Victorias of Cornwall who were invincible behind their controversial superstar, Albertine Lapensée. Only 16 years old, the youngest of 11 children, her hockey skills were so superior that some suspected she was in fact a man. (The rumours were so persistent that her father publicly testified to her gender; newspapers also investigated the allegations, and on 12 February 1916 readers were informed that “The Montreal Star representative took occasion to inquire into Miss Lapensee’s history and from what he learned he is thoroughly convinced ‘he’ is a ‘she.’”) Lapensée was nicknamed “The Miracle Maid” and “L’etoile des etoiles,” and seemed to be able to score at will. A half-dozen goals in a game was not unusual for her, and her best game was 15 goals in a 21–0 win. The “Vics” never lost with her in uniform. However, Lapensée began demanding money, annoying team owners intent on keeping the profits themselves.

Money was certainly one of the attractions of women’s hockey during the First World War, at least to investors. American entrepreneurs ignored the men players in Canada and came calling for the women, bidding $10,000 (the equivalent of about $200,000 in 2013) for an All-Star team to take an “Arabian Night” tour across the United States. A public outcry was started by Hugh Graham, the conservative publisher of the Montreal Star, who thundered that any woman who went on the tour would lose their amateur status and possibly their virtue; the trip was subsequently cancelled.

The Eastern League withered away following the end of the war. With the return of men from overseas, professional male hockey leagues were reinvigorated and commercial interest in women’s hockey evaporated (although women continued to play in amateur leagues across the country). Moreover, the (male) team owners in the Eastern League spent more time fighting and stealing each other’s players, than in formulating a business plan that would consolidate their amazing progress. All the principals disappeared from the sports pages by 1920, except Len Porteous, the league founder, who was suspected of stealing his typewriter from the shop where he had pawned it.

The women also disappeared from the news and from historical record. Albertine Lapensée, the “Miracle Maid,” retired in 1918 and disappeared. (One report claimed she had died in the Spanish Flu epidemic of that year in New York City.) Similarly, little is known about the lives of the other players after the league folded. However, for a brief period, they were the stars of the Canadian sporting world, celebrated on both sides of the 49th parallel.