We’ll explore the modern day towards the end of the article, but first, let’s turn our attention away from the inception of hockey (and its official declaration as Canada’s favourite) and toward a certain corner of a certain city called Kitchener, in September of 1913. Except at that time, this corner of Kitcher wasn’t called Kitchener – it was Doon.
Doon was ultimately absorbed into Kitchener (like Blair into Preston), and today it comprises much of the southern city. Not only is it a site of rapid growth and development recently, but it’s also home to several Kitchener hotspots: the main campus of Conestoga College, Homer Watson House, and the fabulous Doon Heritage Village, which made an appearance in both the WRX Best Historic Sites in Kitchener and the WRX Best Museums in Kitchener-Waterloo lists.
In 1913, though, Doon was still Doon. And in September of that year, a girl by the name of Hilda Doris Ranscombe was born, the youngest of nine siblings. As a girl, Hilda learned to skate on Cressman Pond, near her familial home, and it wasn’t long before she graduated from pond to river (specifically, the Grand River) and began playing hockey with local boys.
Hilda, along with her older sister Nellie and another pair of sisters, got together to form a softball team: the Preston Rivulettes. As much as they enjoyed softball, though, it becomes rather difficult to round the bases when they’re submerged under a foot of snow. And so they decided to take their experiences playing pick-up hockey on the ponds and lakes nearby and get serious about hockey. In 1931, the Preston Rivulettes hit the ice.
It was clear very early on that Hilda Ranscombe was the star player. She was blazingly fast and smooth on the ice, with a seemingly effortless deftness to her stickhandling. he took up the position of forward (right wing, specifically), while her sister Nellie played in net. In addition to her prowess on the ice (even her opponents considered her the best female hockey player in Canada – perhaps the world), she was a great leader: encouraging to her teammates both on and off the ice.
The Preston Rivulettes
It’s important to understand that, at the time, women were discouraged from participating in sports, particularly ones considered rougher than others (like hockey). The Preston Rivulettes ended up playing to riveted audiences in Cambridge and travelling nation-wide, where they proved that they weren’t just a local phenomenon: they were, without question, the best team in Canada. This lasted from 1931 through to 1940, when enthusiasm dried up as World War II became the nation’s central focus.
During the ’31-’40 period, throughout which Hilda Ranscombe served as captain, the Preston Rivulettes won a staggering number of games (more stats shortly), with ten consecutive Ladies Ontario Hockey Association titles, five consecutive titles in the Eastern Canadian Women’s Hockey Championship, six Dominion championships (including decisive wins against Edmonton and Winnipeg). And although no official stats were kept, many point to Hilda herself as the driving force behind their success (although she stated humbly that it was always the team as a whole).
To really put a fine point on it: in roughly 350 games played, the Preston Rivulettes only lost twice, and had three ties. Yes, they won over 95% of their games. This is enough to put them in the upper echelons of sports teams, with few managing to reach that level of sustained success – ten years of utter supremacy is no mean feat! Many teams have spectacular seasons, but only a select few (like the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks) have ever been able to remain at the top for such a long stretch of time.
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All of that is to say: Hilda Ranscombe was an incredible athlete, and the Preston Rivulettes were an incredible team. In addition to their dominance over that spectacular decade, the Rivulettes went on to earn quite a few accolades in the years to come (and Hilda Ranscombe got quite a few for herself). The formation of the Preston Rivulettes was declared a National Historic Event (there’s a commemorative plaque in Cambridge), and Hilda Ranscombe was inducted into both the Cambridge Sports Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Funding for women’s hockey dried up due to both the Great Depression and the onset of WWII, though men’s hockey (despite no team being quite as thrilling as the Rivulettes) persisted. In spit of this, Stanley Cup winning former Detroit Red Wings forward Carl Liscombe, who used to play with Nellie and Hilda on the Grand River, suggested that she was as good as, perhaps better than, any of the boys.
Hilda Ranscombe’s legacy, and that of the Preston Rivulettes, speaks for themselves. Not only were they veritable stars over the course of that incredible decade, but they also opened the door for more women to shine. By the ‘60s, women’s hockey moved further into the mainstream, and in 1998, women’s hockey became an official Olympic sport.
And though there’s been a major step back, recently – the Canadian Women’s Hockey League announced they would be shutting down on May 1st, 2019, due to a lack of funding – women’s hockey continues to flourish.
The Canadian women’s national ice hockey team has been utterly dominant on the international stage for nearly 30 years, with 4 golds and 2 silvers in the Winter Olympics (there have only been 6 since 1998), and shelves full of golds and silvers in the World Championships, the 4 Nations Cup, and more.
Indeed, Team Canada won more than half of major tournaments since their inception. All of this is to say: Hilda Ranscombe and the Preston Rivulettes live on, with modern players like Haley Wickenheiser (like Hilda Ranscombe before her, a polyathlete with especial skill in both softball and hockey) suitable heirs to the mantle of greatest women’s hockey player in the world.
Hockey in the Waterloo Region
The story of the Preston Rivulettes continues to resonate, but their remarkable decade of dominance was over half a century ago. Can we still see traces of this tremendous team on the streets of Cambridge and Kitchener today?
Hockey remains popular in the Waterloo Region (this is Canada, after all), and residents are spoiled for choice when it comes to local arenas. From the RIM Park (foreshadowing: stay tuned for an article on RIM, a.k.a. BlackBerry, soon) Manulife Sportsplex in northern Waterloo, with its four Olympic-size ice rinks, to the Woolwich Memorial Centre (two NHL-size ice surfaces), there are arenas throughout the Tri-Cities and the surrounding Townships.
Not even including the outdoor skating rinks that open every winter, there are four arenas in Waterloo (including one with 4 rinks and one with 2), six in Cambridge, three arenas in Wilmot, and the North Dumfries Community Complex in Ayr, the Wellesley Arena, the Woolwich Memorial Centre, and ten arenas in Kitchener. Two rinks are available at the Activa Sportsplex in Kitchener (including the Kitchener Minor Hockey Association Alumni Arena), and there is, of course, the Dom Cardillo Arena at the Aud, near Downtown Kitchener.
The Kitchener Rangers
That arena serves as home to the Kitchener Rangers, the Region’s major junior hockey team. Though perhaps not quite on the scale of the Preston Rivulettes, the Kitchener Rangers are indeed considered one of the OHL’s finest teams, with numerous Memorial Cup appearances (and two wins), multiple division titles, numerous trophies, and almost 200 players and coaches going on to the NHL. If you, like many people from around the Waterloo Region, would enjoy watching the Rangers play, you can find tickets here.
Residents with kids looking to get involved in local hockey can find more information about their nearest leagues at the following links: Kitchener Minor Hockey, Waterloo Minor Hockey, Cambridge Minor Hockey, Woolwich Minor Hockey, Twin Centre Minor Hockey (Wellesley and St. Clements), the Ayr Flames (North Dumfries), the New Hamburg Hockey Association, and Wilmot Girls Hockey.
Galt, Preston and Hespeler may still have somewhat of a ‘sibling rivalry,’ but all of Cambridge – indeed, the whole Waterloo Region – can take pride in the Preston Rivulettes incredible legacy. And although you can’t visit the original Preston Lowther Street Icehouse, former home to the Preston Rivulettes (it was dismantled in 1961 and replaced by the Preston Memorial Arena), you can still visit a slice of history in the Galt Arena Gardens, the oldest continuously-running hockey arena in the world.
Written by Will Kummer