Raphaelle Tousignant dreams of being a Paralympic hockey player.
But as a woman, that means making a men’s team because there isn’t a women’s Paralympic hockey team to play on.
That hasn’t stopped Tousignant from chasing her goal of taking the ice for Canada on the sport’s biggest stage.
“When I learned that the woman's side of the game wasn't at the Paralympic Games, I changed my dream and said, ‘I want to be part of the men's team,’” she told The Canadian Press. “People were looking at me like I was crazy, like 'oh, you're 14 years old, you don't know — you're too little, you're just being naive and you're not going to be able to make it, it's so unrealistic.'”
Tousignant took a significant step toward proving her doubters wrong on Monday night, becoming the first North American woman to play in a major international para hockey competition in Canada’s 15-1 win against South Korea at the world championships in Moose Jaw, Sask.
Not only did she make history, she also scored a goal.
The 20-year-old forward from Terrebonne, Que. recognizes how big of an impact she can have.
“I think it's a big step forward for the women's side of the game,” said Tousignant, who first made the national development team in 2019. “Hopefully some other countries are going to see me being part of Team Canada and they're gonna say 'hey, I want to get back home, I want to build my own women's team.’
“It's a big achievement for me, but it's also a big step for women's para hockey.”
Canadian women’s team head coach Tara Chisholm, who’s coached Tousignant since she made the women’s team at 14 years old, says there’s a long way to go before the women’s game is in a good place, but she’s excited about the exposure Tousignant is bringing.
“She's going to have eyes on her, which is awesome for the women's side of the game to let other countries know that women can play this sport and that they deserve to be able to play,” she said. “That's what's really exciting to have her there, being able to show people that women are hockey players, also disabled women are hockey players.”
Para hockey at the Paralympics is technically mixed gender, but only three women (two for Norway, one for China) have played in the Games despite teams being allowed to increase their rosters from 17 to 18 players to add a woman.
World Para Ice Hockey is aiming to have a women’s world championships in place by 2025, says Chisholm, which could be a precursor to the Paralympics finally having a women’s hockey tournament at the 2030 Games — something that would go a long way in helping increase the percentage of female athletes at the Winter Games. Women made up just 24 per cent of the international athletes at the 2022 Beijing Games.
Players can compete at the Para Ice Hockey Women's World Challenge, an international competition taking place for a second year this fall. But without a world championship or Paralympic competition, Canada’s women’s team hasn’t been able to get funding from Sport Canada or Own The Podium — meaning players have to pay any costs not covered by sponsors.
Chisholm says that can range from $5,000 to $15,000 a year, depending on where you live.
“I'm extremely proud of Raph and all that she's done to get to where she is and be able to have the same opportunity that the men have right now because no woman has had that,” said Chisholm. “This is the first time ever that a woman didn’t have to pay to be able to put on the Hockey Canada jersey.
“That in itself is I guess a bit of a milestone.”
Tousignant says she hopes women can have worlds and Paralympic competitions one day, but on a personal level, she appreciates the challenge of making the men’s team.
“I achieved the top women's player in the world pretty quickly,” she said. “So for me, I don't think it's a bad thing that I had to go through the men's team … I actually enjoy it because it's made me push my limits even more, and I don't think I would be the player that I am today if I didn't have to do that.”
Despite being determined to make the men’s team, Tousignant says the reality of the situation did allow some doubt to creep in.
“I asked myself, 'should I change sports?’ Because at the end of the day, my goal is to be a Paralympian,” she said. “(But) I couldn't go to another sport and just like, forget about para hockey, I couldn't do it.”
Now one step closer to achieving her dream, Tousignant says getting used to the men’s team’s system and figuring out her role are two of the biggest adjustments — along with adapting to the size of her new opponents.
But what Tousignant lacks in size at five-foot, 106 pounds, she makes up for with her fortitude, says Chisholm.
“Ever since I've met her, ever since she was young, she's always been kind of fearless.”
Canada and the United States, para hockey’s powerhouses, face off in the world championships on Wednesday night. For the first time, a woman could take the ice.
Chisholm says it can’t stop there.
“I definitely feel like we can't just rest here and be happy with one woman making a national team,” she said. “There are lots of little girls with disabilities across the country that want to play this sport, just the way that the boys on their team play this sport, too.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.
Daniel Rainbird, The Canadian Press